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The Inbounds: Time for non-contenders to readjust their timelines

Aug 13, 2012, 11:59 AM EDT

Los Angeles Lakers Introduce Dwight Howard Getty Images

Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

One thing that frustrates me about the NBA more than anything else is how small the list of title contenders is.  In the NFL, roughly 20 franchises begin the season with a legitimate shot at the title. In MLB, because of the way rosters, production, and individual games can shift, the group is just as wide. But in the NBA, it’s never more than really six teams, and that’s in a good year.

But now, with how things have shaken out over the past two years, the list is even smaller. Superstar teams were all the rage, now they’re the standard. If you had one great star and a good supporting cast, you could make the Finals. Now if you don’t have at least two, you’re not even in the conversation. As I wrote last week, the NBA’s arms race is out of control.

The best team in the NBA features one of the following: 1. the best player in the NBA, the second best shooting guard in the NBA and a top-ten power forward, 2. the best scorer in the NBA, two NBA All-Stars, and three members of the 2012 Olympic gold medal team (and a member of the 2012 Olympic silver medal team), or 3. Three future Hall-of-Famers, the second best shooting guard in NBA history, a former two-time MVP, the best center in the NBA, and a power forward who was the best big man in the league two years ago.

So yeah, the bar’s kind of high.

You can narrow the list of contenders in the NBA next season to essentially the Heat, the Thunder, and the Lakers. It’s possible a team comes out like the Mavericks  and surprises, but early on in the 2011 season, it was clear they would be on the list. Celtics fans would demand a spot on that list, but in reality, given the age of their most important pieces and the relative ability of their supporting cast. Pacers fans are wisely too self-aware to include themselves on that list. You can throw the Spurs on the list if you want, I don’t, because I’ve been bludgeoned to death by the factual accuracy of the “defense wins championships” cliche. Clippers? No. Grizzlies? No way. Nuggets? Nope. The Bulls? Derrick Rose is too much of a question mark to qualify.

The Knicks and Nets pass the starpower smell test, but they don’t stack up with the top teams in their conference. Making the Eastern Conference Finals is possible for either one, but winning the title is an entirely different level. And that kind of shows where we’re at. You can make the Conference Finals, be one of the last four teams, and not be a title contender.

So think about that. Twenty-seven franchises, if accurately assessing their chances, enter the season with no realistic hope at a title. There are certainly possibilities of exceptions. Injuries, major leaps, magical matchup issues. It’s true that “anything can happen in sports,” it just doesn’t, you know, seem to a lot of the time in the NBA. And every bit of starpower accumulation makes the road that much tougher.

But in truth, this is a good thing for the league. Interest is always highest when there are a few select elite teams, as there were in the 80’s. And Miami vs. the Lakers is the dream that David Stern drifts through in a candy cane and marshmallow haze each night. There have been complaints in the past about the lack of truly great teams in the league. That’s no longer an issue.

But what about everyone else? The star power’s gone. It’s taken. You’re not getting Dwight Howard, you’re not getting Steve Nash, you’re not getting Andrew Bynum (most likely). You’re almost certainly not getting Chris Paul. You’re not getting Deron Williams. At least not for a few years, in either case. So these teams, like Denver, Philadelphia, Dallas, Indiana, even Minnesota and Memphis, have to reassess their priorities. In reality, maybe it’s a good thing that this stratification has occurred.

Before, if you weren’t in contention for a title, you were a failure. And there will still be that talk from traditional columnists and certainly from the team’s management to the public. No one wants to hear “We’re aiming for fifth best.” But title contention isn’t just a huge challenge anymore. It’s a near-impossibility. Denver has built a playoff team featuring an All-Star with great players at every position, and it’s not close to a title. So there has to be a re-evaluation of the timelines. The goal should not be to “win now.” No one is winning now, except for those three teams at the top. If you want to aim to be that team that defies the odds, dares to dream, and captures the glory, go ahead. But it’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to cost you long-term.

Instead, teams need to focus on 2015. Yes, that’s right. 2015. By then, the luxury tax will have started to take its toll. Dwyane Wade will be getting into his middle-30’s, LeBron James will be 30, and the Lakers will have either disbanded or had to reconfigure (probably by getting Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, a  clone of Michael Jordan and Megatron, since that’s apparently what they’re capable of doing whenever they want to; oh, and they’ll only trade Darius Morris for it). The Thunder will have had to make the tough choices about their rosters, and if they haven’t won a title by then, frustration will set in. I’m not kidding, you honestly need to target three years from now as your first opportunity to win the title.

So that means getting the younger players as much as you can, trying to squeeze out any possible stars, getting lottery picks for 2014 and 2015, and above all, managing expectations. I’m not advocating the Nuggets or Sixers blow it up. We’ve seen the rebuilding model as too unstable. It’s a good approach, as we see with the Hornets (who are going to be in a great position in 2015, by the way, if they play their cards right), but it can also be disastrous (say hi, Bobcats fans!). The Nuggets can win now, make the playoffs, hope for that miraculous season to come around, while also legitimately plotting their way to 2015. But let me put it this way. If you’re Memphis, and you consider the reason that you’re paying all this money, the largest payroll in franchise history by my bet,  for a title contender? It’s time to think about moving some parts. You need to put a price tag on “Conference Finalist” and aim for that. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Being a great team that doesn’t win a title happens all the time. Charles Barkley was on about six of them. But this starpower migration has created a situation that is untenable for teams who are not elite.

Fans need to understand this, too. It’s not that your team is failing you or mismanaged, necessarily, if they’re a playoff team that isn’t a title contender. It’s just not possible. We’re legitimately out of difference-makers. There will always be good players you can get. Paul Millsap is going to test free agency. DeMarcus Cousins is never going to be in a stable position until he matures, if that occurs (and he’s well worth the price). So there will be chances. But the bar has been raised to a level that most teams, and let’s be honest, most markets, can’t compete with. If your team isn’t a bottom-dweller, you might want to be happy, and if they’re clearly planning for the future, even better. It’s a time for patience, something players, ownes, and fans rarely express.

But this is the world we live in. If you’re not Voltron, it’s better to just patrol your planet than try and defend the galaxy.

The robots have just gotten too big.

  1. illcomm - Aug 13, 2012 at 12:14 PM

    sixers got bynum n he is gonna resign. he is a gritty player n the city of philly will fall in love with thief hometown center.

    • danfrommv - Aug 13, 2012 at 1:04 PM

      Having watched Bynum play for 6 years, I would use a lot of words to describe him: Very good touch, soft hands, long enough to pull down 30 rebounds and block 10 shots. But gritty? No way. He lacks focus. Maybe the change of scenery will help him focus. Good luck finding disabled parking spots, though.

  2. timb12 - Aug 13, 2012 at 12:16 PM

    Where are the rockets?! Jeremy Lin is going to put them over the top! With Lin and Asik the rockets are a shoe in for the title! I know those guys should probably be coming off the bench but they’re our stars now!

    Hahaha I can’t even buy that. Another 15th pick in the draft for Houston.

  3. phillyphever - Aug 13, 2012 at 12:31 PM

    This is why I prefer hockey: the parity is so large that an 8th seeded team can get hot and win it all (ex. LA Kings). In the NBA, the 8th seed needs to get lucky just to win the first round (ex. Rose and Noah’s injuries causes the Bulls to lose in the first round).

    • danfrommv - Aug 13, 2012 at 1:07 PM

      And that is why I dislike hockey. The regular season exists to elminate 3 teams

  4. hokiegajanisgod - Aug 13, 2012 at 12:38 PM

    Did Howard shrink in the off-season, or is Kupchak hitting a growth spurt?

    • Kurt Helin - Aug 14, 2012 at 9:55 AM

      Kupchack is a legit 6-9, but the photo makes it look worse.

  5. lakerluver - Aug 13, 2012 at 12:49 PM

    Hockey’s still a sport? Who knew?!!……A lot of truth is said in jest, K. Love probably will be a LAKER!…….It’s refreshing to hear someone with enough bball knowledge to realize that Kobe is the 2nd best sg ever, and, he’s not done YET!!!

    • bougin89 - Aug 13, 2012 at 1:08 PM

      Two things real quick, lakerluver.

      1) Do you know how the reply button works? If you want to comment on someone elses comment all you have to do is click reply. This will also make it easier for us(almost everyone else that reads these comments) to skip over most of your comments. I’ve clicked on the reply button under your comment as an example. My text will be shifted to the right and everyone knows who I’m replying to.

      2) I know this has been said before multiple times but capitalizing LAKERS on every comment is just about the doucheiest thing you can do.

      • dadawg77 - Aug 13, 2012 at 1:28 PM

        To be fair, the droid mobile app it just lists replies without a thread format and there is no reply button. (ie the comment section in ProFootballTalk).

      • bougin89 - Aug 13, 2012 at 2:20 PM

        Good to know, dadawg. Lakerluver, my apologies about the reply button.

  6. luckysunday20 - Aug 13, 2012 at 12:50 PM

    “probably by getting Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, a clone of Michael Jordan and Megatron, since that’s apparently what they’re capable of doing whenever they want to; oh, and they’ll only trade Darius Morris for it”

    I laughed waaayyyy to hard at this thank you lol

    • gmsalpha - Aug 13, 2012 at 2:10 PM

      Scary as it may be for the rest of the league, I can definitely see the Lakers reeling in Kevin Love and/or Westbrook. Both are UCLA guys, first of all. And the frustration of not winning in their current locations will become too much after losing to most likely…the Lakers. The Thunder will only be able to keep their core together so long, especially if they continue to play at All-Star levels, while Minnesota’s chances are even slimmer. Love has already made it known that his patience is wearing thin (and it’s cold!)

      Derrick Rose is already playing in his hometown, which happens to be a BIG market, so I really don’t see him going anywhere. And from what I keep hearing, adidas doesn’t want its two biggest NBA endorsers in the same market, let alone on the same team. That’s completely illogical IMO, but whatever.

      Kobe will retire after winning at least one more ring. It’s nearly impossible for him not to get one in the next two years, if not two rings. Nash will finally leave with a ring to secure his legacy, and Gasol will be the bridge between the two generations, but hear me now. The Lakers will continue to reload and dominate the league for the next decade.

      Besides, Wade is not going to hold up physically very much longer and yes, people want to play and live in markets like New York and Miami, but that hasn’t stopped both teams from being really bad for long stretches. And as everyone knows, the Spurs and Celtics are over the hill. Classy teams, but their windows are closed, especially in today’s NBA against “the robots”.

  7. southpaw77 - Aug 13, 2012 at 1:02 PM

    It doesn’t matter, by 2015-2016 those teams like LA, Miami and Boston will have those contracts off the books and they just reload anyways. These small market owners should have cancelled last season and fought for the hard cap like the NFL.
    Now we have 4-6 great teams and 25 Washington Generals as schedule fillers. At least from the 80s till the 90s most franchises had a hall of famer on their team (Mullin-GS, R.Miller-Indy, Admiral- Spurs, Hakeem-Hou, Payton-Sea, Stockton n Malone-Utah, Dominque- ATL, Mourning-Char, Ewing-NY, etc), not anymore.

    Its pretty bad when your own commish is against cold weather small markets that he even says he will only put all star games in warm cities or big cities anymore, hence LA getting the all star game in 2004 and 2011 and Houston in 2006 and 2013.

  8. lakerluver - Aug 13, 2012 at 1:08 PM

    He looked pretty gritty to me playing on one freaking leg!! What were you watching?

    • tsi431 - Aug 13, 2012 at 1:54 PM

      He should be used to it. He has been playing on one leg for 5 years now.

  9. giselleisasucubus - Aug 13, 2012 at 1:21 PM

    I love your continued ignorance of the Celtics situation. Their best player is 27. Garnett or Pierce miss some games, they survive now. Rondo has gone to another level that I admit, I never thought he would reach. Pierce and Kobe have the same tread on their tires. Rondo DESTROYS Nash(look it up). The Celtics match up with the Lakers and the Heat and they might have added enough young legs to run with OKC. It is almost like you are pretending they kept Ray and didn’t replace him with 2 good young players(Lee & Bradley when he returns) and a PG/SG(Terry, 3 years younger than Ray) that can hit 3’s and shoot off the dribble. Keep discounting the Celtics all you want. It isn’t just their fans that recognize what they put together this offseason. That team is deep and built to compete with the “superteams”.

    • tsi431 - Aug 13, 2012 at 1:57 PM

      You can talk about Rondo vs Nash (Pierce vs Kobe) all you want, but there is no way the Celtics are going to beat the Heat in order to make the NBA Finals, so who cares. The Lakers vs Celtics match will never occur in the Finals, in Nash and Kobe’s era.

    • eventhorizon04 - Aug 13, 2012 at 10:06 PM

      “Their best player is 27.”
      Yes, but their most valuable player is KG, and he’s 37.
      “Pierce and Kobe have the same tread on their tires.”
      True, but even a guy like me who dislikes Kobe recognizes that Kobe >>> Pierce at this point. The numbers aren’t even close the past two years. Not even a little.

      “Rondo DESTROYS Nash(look it up).”
      Rondo hasn’t played against a Steve Nash team with a supporting cast 25% as talented as what he has now, so that’s irrelevant.

      “The Celtics match up with the Lakers and the Heat and they might have added enough young legs to run with OKC.” Wrong on all 3 counts, but let’s focus on the Lakers.

      Celtics are a terrible matchup for the Lakers.
      They have nobody to matchup against Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
      They have 1 7-footer who’s 37 years old and contemplated retirement (KG), and another (Fab Melo) who is a rookie that who only knows how to play zone defense and did terribly in summer league. Oh, and Jason Collins.

      Moving down the line, Metta World Peace easily shuts down Paul Pierce at age 37, Pau Gasols easily outduels Brandon Bass or rookie Jared Sullinger, and Kobe outduels Avery Bradley.

      Rondo beats Nash. That’s it – out of Boston’s starting 5, Rondo is the only favorable matchup against the Lakers.

      In the playoffs, when rotations drop to 8 guys, the starting 5 matter most.

      When KG gets gassed in the fourth quarter, and Pau and Dwight are both in the game, Celtics lose.

  10. southpaw77 - Aug 13, 2012 at 1:24 PM

    Is that why Chris Grant is saving his cap space? The Cavs are gonna make their strike around 2015 or 2016?
    Yes! Lol.

    Of course by then, the Lakers will have Nash, Kobe and Gasol off the books and have the NBA’s next young crop of talent, they just harvest other teams players like the machines in the matrix, harvesting humans or in simpler terms, like the NY Yankees do.

  11. weaselpuppy - Aug 13, 2012 at 2:25 PM

    Monroe Drummond Knight, another lottery pick next year and $40M+ of cap space in 2014 is a nice base to build from for the Pistons…you can find wing scorers in FA, impact big guys much less so..

  12. cantonbound13 - Aug 13, 2012 at 2:41 PM

    Knicks vs Lakers in the finals. Book it.

    • admin - Aug 13, 2012 at 4:54 PM

      i want what you are smoking!

  13. polarbearsquares - Aug 13, 2012 at 3:08 PM

    The difference is in the NFL they’ve tried to encourage parity. In the NBA they’ve basically tried to punish the successful teams, particularly the Lakers. Miami is on the list too but they rebuilt through free agency not trades like the Lakers. OKC rebuilt through the draft. Look I want parity too. But that’s not what I hear. What I hear is there is no parity because the Lakers are always good and always competitive. WTF?

    When the Chris Paul trade was blocked everybody cheered. Why? Because, although it was a little more complicated than that, people thought it was league sticking it to the Lakers. Screwing over the Lakers does not equal parity. The Lakers benefitting from trades does not mean parity doesn’t exist. Seems like the conversation about small market teams and big market teams ends and begins with the Lakers.

    I do agree teams need to look to 2015. But most of all they just need to make smart moves. San Antonio does it through the draft and international scouting. Phx got to the WCF in 2010. Den got to the WCF in 2009. These teams have shown they’re good enough to make smart moves in the interim but they need to plan for the future like you said. Teams like MIA, OKC and LAK have long-term plans.

    I want parity too. But at the sake of sounding like Ayn Rand (not a fan btw) I just don’t think we need to punish or bemoan success. It can be done. Cle built a winner for 7 years. Seattle was a winner with the Payton-Kemp era. Maybe the problem is we need better front offices in this league more than anything.

    • cosanostra71 - Aug 13, 2012 at 4:45 PM

      “Maybe the problem is we need better front offices in this league more than anything.”

      Thank you! This times 1000! I hate when people say the league is “rigged” for the Lakers or something of that effect. I’m sure it has nothing to do with a HOF owner who has only had 2 GMs in the past 30 years or so – one of whom is in the HOF as an executive, and the other of whom could be argued for as a HOF executive now. Stability and smart hires!

      • wlubake - Aug 13, 2012 at 4:52 PM

        West didn’t have that same success in Memphis though. Maybe he got dumber after leaving L.A. We’ll see how his role in Golden State works out.

      • cosanostra71 - Aug 13, 2012 at 9:05 PM

        He built their first playoff squad ever…

  14. wlubake - Aug 13, 2012 at 4:47 PM

    It is hard to feel bad for small market teams when they keep trading their stars to the Lakers and the like. Phoenix gave the Lakers Nash when they couldn’t have signed him on their own. Orlando gave the Lakers Howard when they couldn’t have signed him next year as a free agent.

    No GM or owner can complain about the current landscape until they show the balls to make their superstar give up an extra year and $25 million dollars to sign somewhere else.

  15. admin - Aug 13, 2012 at 4:49 PM

    Parity = low ratings. Plain and simple!

    Look at NBA in the 70’s. Lowest rating decade in their history. 8 different teams (NY, Boston, LA, Milwaukee, Portland, Wash Bullets, Seattle Sonics) won from 70-79.

    NBA 80’s & 90’s = known as NBA golden era. Only 7 teams won in a 20 YR span 80-99 (LA, Boston, Philly, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, and San Antonio…who got one at the tail end of the decade).

    WNBA Golden Era = 1st 6 years (96-02), only Houston Comets & LA Sparks won.

    NBA ratings have skyrocketed over last 2 years since LeBron’s “decision”, but was picked up from the GRAVE 3 yrs before that in 2007, then LA got Gasol for basically nothing and Boston got KG + Ray Allen for less value in both scenarios. Why did Stern approve that? Because NBA ratings were going 1970’s-esque from ’04-’07, which known as the San Antonio (aka most boring team in the NBA) era…also marred by the Ron Artest melee, changing the NBA ball for half a season (remember that bad experiment) and the sudden change of the NBA dress code.

    San Antonio is a great fundamentally sound team, with a superstar in Tim Duncan that you wanted your sibling or child to be like. But the NBA is a BUSINESS, and businesses thrive when they make $$$…so after the ’07 finals (that featured San Antonio’s 4-game sweep of LeBron’s Cavs) featured the LOWEST RATINGS of the NBA finals in the modern-era, mixed in with Kobe crying for a trade that summer, something had to be done to keep interest. Then the Boston/LA trades happen (the 1st superteams over the last 15 yrs), and the rest is history!

    It’s all about ratings…

  16. eventhorizon04 - Aug 13, 2012 at 10:15 PM

    Parity only is achieved with a hard-cap.

    Look at who has won an NFL Super Bowls since 2000
    NY Giants
    Green Bay
    New Orleans
    New England (Boston)
    Tampa Bay

    How many of those cities would you classify as “large market”?
    NY…Boston….and that’s it. The rest are medium sized markets or smaller.

    Unsurprisingly, the NFL has achieved consistent and radical growth, while the NBA has regressed since Jordan left.

    If you’re not a fan of one of the 4 teams who can win, why watch the games?

    • Kurt Helin - Aug 13, 2012 at 10:22 PM

      You will NEVER have NFL style parity in the NBA, hard cap or no, because of the nature of the sport. In basketball one great player — LeBron, Durant, Kobe, KG, etc.. — can impact the outcome of a game far more than even a great quarterback. In the NBA, if you do not have one of those 10 franchise changing guys, you stand no chance. You can get those guys and win in a small market in the NBA (San Antonio, OKC) and you can be in a big market in the NBA and lose. Miami is a medium market, actually. What seems to drive people crazy is the Lakers are both rich and smart.

      • loungefly74 - Aug 13, 2012 at 10:41 PM

        i’m sure the 2004 Pistons would beg to differ…hehe. yeah, i know…it’s the one expection.

        well…i always say there are 6-8 teams every year with a decent chance to win the title. sometimes match-ups, injuries, and just plain luck help broaden the pool.

        would we be having this conversation if the Celtics (who came damn close) and the Pacers (kinda close) had beaten the Heat?

      • southpaw77 - Aug 14, 2012 at 1:34 AM

        It doesnt take a genuis to deal Kwame Brown, Crittenton and picks for Pau Gasol, or trade picks for Nash, or send garbage out to get Howard. Its a big city, warm weather city, has a history and has marketing chances so players go willingly to LA.

        You can have NFL parity if these superstar players all cant team up and the cap if yearly exceeded. Imagine if Mullin went to NY while Ewing was there and Drexler joined them also or Reggie Miller had to team up with Dominque and go to the Lakers. Why even bother to go down to the arena and see Golden State, Indy, Portland or Atlanta if they would have had no star in the late 80s and 90s?

    • pglive21 - Aug 21, 2012 at 8:10 AM

      The NFL doesn’t have parity due to a hard cap! What a ludicrous suggestion. They have parity because the most profitable teams can offer huge signing bonuses that don’t count against the hard cap and they can hold players hostage via the “Franchise Tag” by not allowing them to reach free agency. It is an awful system that works out terribly for all but the glamour boys who earn the big bucks. Trust me, your typical starting left guard and backup lineman would absolutely prefer the NBA’s system.

  17. limonadamas - Aug 14, 2012 at 11:58 PM

    Love that last line, Matt! hahaha… Voltron.

  18. deshackle - Aug 15, 2012 at 11:59 AM

    Any given Sunday in the NFL. There aren’t any bad teams or franchises, and in fact all 32 teams have a legitimate shot at the playoffs and the super bowl.

    First thing the NBA should do is stop drafting children. Maurice Clarett would’ve been the first player selected in the NBA draft based on his great freshman year at Ohio State. Dwight Howard is a 7’0 chap that’s just now ready to mature into a grown man, now is the time to draft him into the league.

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