Winning, losing, mediocrity. That’s the NBA pecking order these days, with those non-winning, non-tanking tweeners stuck in basketball limbo. Because, really, every GM’s worst fear is to become the next Atlanta Hawks. Only Rockets GM Daryl Morey has tried to rebuild without blowing up the foundation, but the Rockets have stared straight into the eyes of mediocrity and seen nothing. There’s nothing in that abyss for NBA teams, no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s almost a rite of passage these days, sacrificing the mirage of present triumph for a would-be dynasty down the road in some not-so-near future. And while it might be a bit rough on the chew for fans of the supplicating team, it’s necessary karmic justice.
But then there are the teams who cling to the present, tinkering with their roster and plodding through the waves of self-evident truth, that maybe starting over is the best course of action. These teams have moved all of their proverbial poker chips into the middle of the table and shown hands of various terror-inducing levels. They have to win now, if only to satiate the backwards ends-justifies-the-means logic or simply because non-winning equals non-losing as well, which only leaves mediocrity, our worst enemy. With that, here are five NBA teams in need of a championship right now, with anything less than hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy a failure.
5. San Antonio Spurs
The ebb and flow of the NBA was never better personified by this year’s San Antonio Spurs. For the second straight season they earned the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, advancing to the Western Conference Finals and grabbing a 2-0 lead over Oklahoma City. We pronounced them kings, reveled in their team-style play and their propensity for giving us some nasty. We even foolishly posited that they could and would steamroll Miami and that non-clutch, hairline-receding chump in that No. 6 jersey. But all of that disappeared rather quickly as OKC took flight and did younger and more athletic things, leaving the old and crusty Spurs in the dust.
It might be a stretch to say the Spurs need to win now, per se, if only because they’ve done a lot of winning previously. And although they’ve have their fair share of young, subsidiary parts filling in the gaps, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan aren’t getting any younger. If the last two years have been any indication, the Spurs can win now. But if your core three players are all over 30 years old, “can” slowly morphs into “must.”
4. Miami Heat
LeBron James earned his first championship ring this past season, and that’s all good and well. But you don’t convene the super friends for just one NBA title. The Eastern Conference as a whole is essentially a doormat. Indiana couldn’t even handle a handicapped Miami, Chicago with a healthy Derrick Rose lost to the Heat in five games, and the Boston Celtics just can’t beat Miami when it counts. Even with Rajon Rondo‘s superhuman wheeling and dealing, the Celts fell short of matching LeBron’s masterful bravado and withered away on the big stage.
But the real pressure stems from Dwyane Wade – or, really, non-Dwyane Wade, as he’s proven to be of late. Injuries have riddled an otherwise stellar career, and his 30+ years are creaking and cracking a bit too much. And it’s not like Wade has any legitimate trade value, since no NBA team would sacrifice the requisite parts to acquire a broken down once-superstar, and the Miami Heat would obliterate any lasting sense of basketball fealty by dealing the city’s most cherished athletic star. LeBron James is chasing history now, and only his teammates really stand in the way. So while they’re young, while they’re (relatively) injury free, it’s championship or endless Skip Bayless blathering.
3. Boston Celtics
Maybe Boston’s accelerated ascent followed by its painstaking rise to the almost-top was the right formula after all. We sing their praises and applaud their sage-like saavy, as Rajon Rondo sautees and steams the ingredients into a masterful recipe for near-success. They only won once, in their first year, and placated our very high preseason expectations. Everything since then has been the cherry on top of the cherry, a glass half full kind of thing. Well, it’s been four seasons of non-championships for the Celtics, but Danny Ainge still clings to the hope that one more ring is just around the corner – you don’t sign an aging Jason Terry in a youth movement. Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t, but Paul Pierce has already conceded a desire to test free agency when his contract runs out, and Kevin Garnett is on his last contract after nearly retiring in this very offseason.
Boston had its cake, except now they want to eat it too. More power to them, I say, but we’re no longer in the territory of “if.” Championship or not, Boston will demolish their roster’s current structure in two years’ time, so their championship window is not only now, but it’s stringently capped at 730 days.
2. New York Knicks
James Dolan hoped to copy Boston’s tri-wizard formula, except the summer of 2010 left New York with a partially broken wand and a bunch of how-to wizarding books. Eventually he swapped these tools for the future for another able-bodied magician, completing two thirds of the plan. But that third piece never found its way into a Knicks’ uniform, instead evolving into Tyson Chandler and Jeremy Lin. That was fine and dandy, and, as J.R. Smith notes, they still look really good to win it all, sans Lin. Eight playoff losses and one playoff victory later, the Knicks are really under the gun now. In 2014-2015, the Knicks have $62 million committed to three players, which puts them over the current cap. We can expect it to rise a bit by then, but you don’t hamstring future cap flexibility if you don’t think you can get rings right now. Even if this type of thinking is hardly logical, the dollars speak loud and clear. The only way to salvage this salary cap disaster is NBA Finals victories. Now they’ve got to just, you know, do it.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant is a shell of his former self and isn’t getting any younger. Andrew Bynum will be an unrestricted free agent come next season, and those max dollars will surely send him packing to another team. Pau Gasol is pretty good, and so is Steve Nash, but those two plus Kobe don’t exactly equal a championship. So really, the Lakers’ pressure doesn’t even come from the fans, the media, or other third party sources. Without Andrew Bynum, this team will get eaten alive in the Western Conference. And, for those of you scoring at home, that gives the Lakers exactly one season to win the title. Of course, Pau Gasol could be traded and Andrew Bynum re-signed. In an ideal world, that is exactly what would happen. But that would take away from the 2012-2013 team, because the Lakers would likely take back expirings and picks as opposed to present assets.
That brings us back full circle, which is championship or bust. The Lakers are beyond all-in at this point, and it’s been two years since the Lakers were championship relevant. Sure, they’ve parlayed a talented roster into a playoff fixture, but little else. Dallas and Oklahoma City have wiped the floor with their rotting carcass in two consecutive years, and that’s no good. Now, will they win the title this coming season? Eh, who knows. There’s a lot of quality teams out there, especially in the West, so that remains to be seen. But if they don’t win, you can expect Kobe to punch Pau Gasol in the face – that rage has been building for years now.
Which NBA team is under the most pressure to win a title now?
Follow Dylan on Twitter at @DylanTMurphy.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.