The old NBA adage is that there’s no worse place to be than the middle. If you’re great, congratulations, you’re great. That’s the goal of this whole thing we’ve constructed. If you’re terrible, fine, you’ll get a shot at drafting a superstar and eventually becoming great. It’s not as good as, you know, already being great, but it’s something.
But when you’re stuck in the middle, you’re stuck in the middle. You aren’t leapfrogging 20 teams to win a title, but you’re not finding the next LeBron James picking ninth every year. Getting out has to be an active choice. You either consolidate your assets and trade for a superstar—like Houston did with James Harden—or you sell off your parts and try to find that guy through the draft, like Philadelphia has. Every now and then some team will stumble into a Giannis Antetokounmpo, but depending on that is foolish. The first step in finding a franchise player is actually looking for one.
That franchise player is supposed to change everything. Once you have one, you’re supposed to be competitive for a decade or more. That has generally been the case. History is littered with single-star teams winning the title or coming close.
Isiah Thomas was Detroit’s sole superstar and they won the whole thing twice. Hakeem Olajuwon did it, and in that same time frame Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller and Clyde Drexler all came within one series of doing so themselves. Dirk won a title as Dallas’s only star. Allen Iverson made the Finals. Kevin Garnett made the Western Conference Finals. And every player listed was at the center of a sustained run of playoff appearances that at least kept the team relevant.
But let’s look at the single-star teams in 2017, and where they stood as of the All Star break:
Houston: 40-18 record, third in Western Conference.
Oklahoma City: 32-25 record, sixth in Western Conference.
Indiana: 29-28 record, sixth in Eastern Conference.
Chicago: 28-29 record, seventh in Western Conference.
Sacramento: 24-33 record, ninth in Western Conference.
New Orleans: 23-34 record, eleventh in Western Conference.
Houston is the outlier here. The circumstances that led to their success: the perfect combination of a star player and a coach’s system, nearly impeccable health from traditionally unhealthy role players, the league’s seventh-easiest schedule and a complete dedication to pounding a vastly shrinking market inefficiency (the value of three-pointers) is probably not replicable.
The other five teams are far more interesting. In all five cases, we have teams with legitimate superstars. All except for Westbrook are consistently excellent on both sides of the court. (Plus Westbrook is so good at everything besides defense he can be excused). And, all five are trapped in the middle of their conferences.
It’s no fault of their own. It’s just the landscape we currently exist in. How can a team with one superstar expect to compete with the Warriors, who have four? How can any Eastern Conference team hope to knock off LeBron James when he has arguably the second- and third-best players in the conference at his side in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving? And, how does a team with only one superstar compete in the age of the super team?
The answer is that they don’t. The single superstar team is the new middle class. With that player in tow, you’re never going to be bad enough to draft him a suitable sidekick. But without that sidekick on the roster, you’re never going to be good enough to compete with the Golden States and Clevelands of the world. Suddenly you’re stuck in a cycle of mediocrity. And with the new CBA granting so many financial incentives to superstars who choose to stay with their own team, that cycle could last over a decade.
Sacramento is the perfect example of this. Since they drafted DeMarcus Cousins, they’ve picked between fifth and ninth every year. Sure, their own organizational incompetence is partially to blame for their lack of success on the court, but it’s not like they were picking in spots where a star was close to assured.
No one after Sacramento’s picks of that caliber has emerged from the 2014 or 2016 drafts yet. The ones who did in 2011, 2012 and 2013 were far from obvious. Damian Lillard went to Weber State. Kawhi Leonard went to San Diego State. Giannis Antetokounmpo was from Greece. At no point did the Kings whiff on someone widely believed to have star potential.
So Sacramento took a look at the landscape of the league and came to a sobering realization: there was simply no way that they were ever going to beat the Warriors. So why bother trying?
There are certainly talented young teams in the league, but there is no looming Death Star on the horizon like the Warriors are now. There’s no team good enough to intentionally avoid. The era of the super team might come to a natural end. They might only need to get it right once to be truly in the thick of things again. What is now the middle class might one day become contenders.
And that’s what Sacramento is betting on. That, with the assets they collected from New Orleans combined with their own high lottery picks that will now come with Boogie on someone else’s team, they can build something that will be relevant in 2022 or 2023 when the Golden State hydra runs out of heads.
And sooner or later, those other single-star teams are going to have to make similar decisions. Ideally, I’m sure they’d like to do what the Pelicans did by joining the super team conversation. But opportunities to do so are rare. Who was the last superstar to be traded before Cousins? Kevin Love. That was two and a half years ago. The Pacers don’t have two and a half years to wait for such an opportunity. Paul George is going to be a free agent before that.
Instead, they might be faced with the reality that competing with Golden State simply isn’t feasible. That the best course of action would be to ride out the storm. Maybe the Bulls could turn Jimmy Butler into Boston’s two Brooklyn picks and set themselves up for a sustained run in the 2020’s. Maybe Indiana could build something around Myles Turner and the Paul George haul. And, maybe there’s a bright future for Oklahoma City that doesn’t involve Russell Westbrook.
But these maybes are hardly what NBA teams are looking for. Still, they’re better than the absolute “No’s” that come with trying to compete with Golden State. Maybe is better than no.
Sacramento was just the first team to realize that. So they did what teams in the middle have always had to do: they made an active choice to go in another direction. Even if they whiff on their next decade’s worth of picks, it was the right decision. They were never winning a championship with DeMarcus Cousins or even coming close. So why not see what’s behind door No. 2?