After 20 or so games this year, there a few things we know for sure:
1. The Heat are/will be a contender as long as LeBron is on the court, but the margin for error has gotten smaller.
2. The Western Conference is incredibly deep; excluding the Suns (who should eventually return to the their tanking roots), there are 12 teams competing for eight spots. Further proof lies in the fact that last year’s playoff darlings, the Golden State Warriors, are currently in the eighth and final spot. (In all fairness, they are missing do-it-all stud Andre Iguodala.)
3. The Eastern Conference is incredibly ____. Awful? Terrible? No good? Ok, you get the point; outside of Indiana and Miami there isn’t a team that can legitimately be called a contender. Standing 8-10, Chicago is currently in the eighth spot in the East. There are five teams out West (Phoenix, Minnesota, the Lakers, New Orleans and Memphis) with better records than Chicago that are currently out of the playoffs.
The reality of the situation is that this year’s NBA champion will be either Indy, Miami or from a group of perhaps three Western Conference teams. Sadly there has to be eight representatives from the East, meaning there are teams vying for one of the remaining six playoff spots in the East that have no real shot at winning anything. Who is going to knock the Pacers of the Heat out? Atlanta, without a go-to scorer? Boston (who was supposed to be tanking as we speak, but is instead winning) behind wunderkind first-year coach Brad Stevens? How about the Charlotte Bobcat-soontobeHornets, led behind the tremendous trio of Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson? Don’t think so.
That won’t stop some teams from pushing for a spot: the Cavs and owner Dan Gilbert are tired of the losing (and more importantly want to show LeBron they can win); Washington’s coach and GM are fighting for their jobs, as no playoffs probably means no jobs; and Detroit just spent a pretty penny on their new cast of “pretty-good but not great” nucleus. Heck, even the Bucks were all-in on a playoff run before injuries to center Larry Sanders and point guard Brandon Knight brought them down to Earth. With a solid core group of players, the Raptors were supposed to be in that group. Until today.
At the start of the season, the perennial cellar-dwelling Toronto Raptors were poised to make a playoff run. But with news of a Rudy Gay-to-Sacramento deal taking place, new Raptors GM Masai Ujiri (part super GM-part cap clearing expert) sent the message loud and clear that the Raptors weren’t good enough to compete in the playoffs. That’s refreshing to see. I’m all for a competitive league, but why compete for mediocrity?
To win in the NBA’s current landscape, you either need 2-3 stars and a group of cheap veterans and young sleepers (AKA the Heat/Rockets mold), or you need to develop your players, draft well, sign an above-average player here and there, and hope one of your young guys turns into a franchise guy (the Pacers/Spurs/Bulls/Thunder prototype). Or land a franchise-changer from the get-go. In recent history, nobody outside of the 2011 Mavs — a team led by a rejuvenated Dirk and a group of veterans that totally bought into the system/played with amazing chemistry — there hasn’t been any other way. Ujiri, a former Executive of the Year winner with the Nuggets (who executed the Carmelo trade, which is looking better every day), knows this and isn’t aiming for mediocrity in Toronto. Didn’t the Drake partnership tell you anything?