Here’s the dismal, logical endpoint of something or other: in mid-February, eight NBA teams have between sixteen and nineteen wins. The Hawks, Magic, Mavericks, Kings, Suns, Bulls, Grizzlies, and Nets are all varying degrees of awful—or, as Tom Ziller aptly puts it, so bad, they can’t help but beat each other—and the race for not just the number one pick, but the whole first half of the lottery, is about as crowded as it has ever been.
These franchises have arrived at futility in different ways. The Magic have a new front office in place who seem content to evaluate what they have—especially in Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, both heading into restricted free agency this summer—and pratfall their way into a promising prospect they can pair with Jonathan Isaac. The Hawks, Kings, and Suns set themselves up to suck, and by god, they’re following through. The Bulls recently dumped Nikola Mirotic because—well, because Bobby Portis punched him in the face, but also because he was sabotaging their tanking efforts with career-high scoring numbers.
The Grizzlies’ season has sounded like a sack full of dinging egg timers. Marc Gasol has fallen off hard at age 33 and Mike Conley has only played twelve games. The Mavericks, for a few years now, have been churning out respectable seasons with undermanned rosters. That streak has finally snapped. The Nets are probably the best of the bunch. They’re well-coached, play hard, and don’t own their pick, so there’s no incentive for them to lose. But Spencer Dinwiddie is a nice player, not a franchise point guard, and the team ranks 26th in offensive rating. They still have lots of work to do.
All of this lamentable, and as a community, NBA fans and media folks have spent a great deal of energy lamenting it. The league has a talent distribution system that’s ostensibly generous—let’s give the worst teams first crack at the best young players—but is so easily gameable that it results in front offices (especially in smaller markets) constructing squads that are meant to fail. We don’t like this because it’s so obviously stupid and fixable: either abolish the draft or assign teams certain picks in certain years as detailed in the Wheel Proposal. Every year the NBA doesn’t address this issue, it tacitly endorses a status quo in which an ever-increasing number of franchises give up on the season before it starts.
Having acknowledged that—and here’s where my line of thinking perhaps careers into some Gladwellian ditch—maybe this setup is accidentally kind of great? It’s broadly accepted that the league is at its best when there are a small handful of really good teams at the top of the standings—we want close, impeccably played Conference Finals; close, impeccably played NBA Finals—which also requires a few teams to test the limits of putridity. This season, we have a hegemon (the Warriors) and three or four quasi-contenders (the Rockets, Celtics, Raptors, and maybe, still, the Cavs). On its face, it’s not an optimal arrangement—ideally, Golden State would be more vulnerable, or the Rockets would, like, add Paul George to the mix—but we’re currently in the midst of one of the best regular seasons in recent memory because the league has a deep and fascinating middle class, and that middle class is built on the backs of this year’s particularly robust group of tankers.
But let’s talk about the rich first. You could say our current era started with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joining Paul Pierce in Boston, or you could designate LeBron’s Decision as the beginning of it, but at some point in the last decade, the majority of NBA stars got wise to the fact they need to team up in order to win titles. That last part has been ever thus—most NBA champions feature at least two all-time greats—but superteam has become a buzzword and every summer a couple of the best players in the league switch teams in order to join a fellow star. We can say with some certainty that Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo are either going to play with generational talents in New Orleans and Milwaukee, or they’re going to leave in their mid-twenties and do it somewhere else. That, for better or for worse, is just the way the league works now.
In other words, teams that look like the Rockets, Cavs, and maybe even the Warriors are going to keep popping up. They’ll rule the NBA; they’ll knock teams that look like the Blazers and Heat out of the first round of the playoffs and beat the Hawks and Kings to a pulp. But what happens in the tier below the league’s very best is up in the air from season to season, and it’s easier for pretty good teams to stay pretty good or improve when a bunch of other franchises aren’t trying to win. This past summer, for instance, the Raptors were able to resign Kyle Lowry to a three-year, below-max deal in part because there wasn’t a huge demand for the all-star point guard. The same goes for Paul Millsap, whom the Hawks walked away from and the Nuggets snapped up on a short-term contract. Heading into this season, the Bucks were a solid squad in need of a point guard, so in early November they grabbed Eric Bledsoe for cheap from the Suns because Bledsoe was miserable on a losing youth movement squad and Phoenix had no use for him.
All of these moves were to some extent made possible by the fact that many NBA franchises are punting the 17-18 season. Why wouldn’t they? If you’re the Kings, there’s no point in chasing Kyle Lowry in free agency. All he’s going to do is bolster your record and leave you with the eighth pick in the draft. The Hawks' front office loves Paul Millsap, but they don’t want him around for a protracted rebuild. Though in theory the NBA free agency and trade markets operate with everybody competing for everything, that’s not how they actually function. The Suns got Greg Monroe, a second-rounder, and a first-rounder so heavily protected it might not ever convey for Eric Bledsoe. They were desperate to sell and Milwaukee were the only buyers offering anything of value. The Bucks got their guy at a cut rate.
If we can agree that the NBA’s draft setup makes for a lot of bad basketball, then we should also acknowledge that it allows the Bucks of the world to grow in a way they otherwise wouldn’t if they had to fight for talent with the Suns and Hawks and Bulls. As an unintended result, the league currently has a glut of intriguing, mostly fun-to-watch teams that are pursuing nothing grander than playing better in February than they did in January. That’s the kind of thing that keeps fans entertained midseason, and the NBA has an abundance of it this year. Whether that’s an argument for keeping the NBA’s busted draft system around depends on where you’re standing. They’re smiling in Milwaukee, but then they’ve been rebuilding for seven years now in Orlando...