I’ve been struck in the first week of the season as to the high quality of NBA basketball being played every single night especially as compared to the NFL, which is struggling in both ratings and quality of product.
The game is in a great place. The rules have struck a fine balance between allowing good defensive play to be rewarded while also letting offenses flow and letting talented players showcase their talent. There’s a steady stream of incoming talent both from the college system and internationally that’s keeping the league fresh and providing teams with exciting talent. The NBA just signed a lucrative television deal that’s increased player salaries across the board and revenues for owners who are investing it back into their franchise with constant stories of new practice facilities, spending more on coaching staffs etc.
More importantly, the teams at “the bottom” are not an embarrassment to the league or its fans. To evaluate any organization such as the NBA, I think it’s less important to focus on the top of the food chain (the Spurs) but to look at the teams at the bottom – by over/unders: Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Los Angeles Lakers.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers have been a complete laughingstock for at least the last two years. They were a franchise without a plan, a franchise that’s front office was most famous for a looming deadline, a farewell tour for a fading superstar, and one of the worst coaches in NBA history. They had failed Hail Mary free agent pitches to players like LaMarcus Aldridge and didn’t get a meeting with Kevin Durant – none of which are surprising. The reputation of one of the most storied franchises in the league was in the gutter, direction-less, and a complete misery to watch on the floor. Yet, things weren’t as bad as they looked. The Lakers have drafted *extremely* well, drafting a core of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr, and now – Brandon Ingram.
This summer the entire narrative changed. Kobe Bryant retired, Luke Walton replaced one of the worst coaches of all time, and the team has responded very well. They’ll still lose a lot of games, to be sure, but they are a team with a plan and a playing style that is entertaining. Fans can finally be at peace with the organization, and the patience moving forward with this rebuild will be greatly rewarded. Not bad for the 3rd worst team in the league.
The derision of Sam Hinkie’s Process reached a fever pitch last season with backlash around the league prompting an emergency review of the NBA Draft lottery system, agents representing players, opponents, opposing owners scorning at lower gate revenues for 76ers game, and fans of the NBA in general all expressing displeasure. This ultimately resulted in the league stepping in and bringing Jerry Colangelo to the front office to essentially save face (I wrote about that here, note: totally wrong about Brett Brown!). What followed was almost predictable: Sam Hinkie resigned, releasing a legendary manifesto; and ultimately Jerry’s son Bryan was entrusted with the future of the franchise. That in itself is not sign of the organization “turning it around and being strong” – it’s debatable that there was ever need for concern, but the team’s current standing is sign enough that things are heading in the right direction.
The personification of The Process is Joel Embiid. His ability shown in the first few games has already enthralled fans across the league, his unique abilities and skill-set combined with basketball IQ is already an invaluable for a team that looked like was heading nowhere. Ben Simmons injury aside, the team has it’s young core in place – they will have more high draft picks, and they have proven that the groundwork for one of the next great NBA teams has been laid. Their transition from embarrassment to promising franchise seemingly happened overnight, their plan – as long as Bryan Colangelo sticks to it – is a sound one, and fans and league partners can be rest assured about it. #TrustTheProcess
The Nets are by far the team in the worst position in the NBA in terms of current asset base and ability to procure future talent. The team is still paying for their disastrous attempt to come into Brooklyn with a bang, acquiring Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for approximately their next 32 years of first round draft picks. To be fair, many including myself noted the high price but also acknowledged the upside of the risk and assumed that a team with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez could contend for a championship. We also forgot it wasn’t 2005. With the departure of Billy King and subsequent hiring of Sean Marks, a Spurs front office alumni, owner Mikhail Prokhorov has appeared to have adopted a more pragmatic view to the development of the franchise and his patience should be rewarded in the coming years.
Sean Marks hired the extremely well-respected Kenny Atkinson to be the head coach, most famous for working behind the scenes with Jeremy Lin during the Linsanity era with the Knicks. Sean Marks used every tool possible in his limited tool chest this summer, signing Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson to offer sheets, hoping at least one would remain unmatched. He scoured the international and D-League rosters, signed Jeremy Lin to establish a two-man game with Brook Lopez, and their early results are extremely positive.
Most importantly, the Nets have direction. They have a front office that’s invested in crafting a culture, a coaching staff that’s invested in establishing a playing style, and high character players that are going to look to compete every night. This is the worst team in the league, has the bleakest outlook of them all, yet is one or two years of positive culture-building from landing a free agent that can turn this franchise around quickly. Not bad for being the “worst of the worst”.
Look, there are still teams that aren’t perfect. The Orlando Magic and New Orleans Pelicans have golden assets while at the same time have a dubious path to respectable contention and have mismanaged their salary cap in crippling ways. The three teams mentioned above could all mess up their rebuilds in various ways – the Lakers could get desperate to “restore their brand” and trade their young players for a star that can’t take them far enough, the 76ers can abandon their Process and do the same, and the Nets can fail to register enough of an impact and remain in 15th seed hell until they receive their own draft picks again. But, most importantly to fans of the product and these teams, they have a plan. They have young, exciting players, and can either enjoy the talent on their roster or enjoy watching raw talent grow. There are as few teams that are completely incompetent as the league has ever seen and as long as the bottom third of the league can remain relevant – the NBA will enjoy continued growth and I can’t be happier about it.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (3-0) [LW: 2]
- Golden State Warriors (2-1) [LW: 1]
- San Antonio Spurs (4-0) [LW: 4]
- LA Clippers (2-0) [LW:3]
- Toronto Raptos (1-1) [LW:6]
- Portland Trail Blazers (2-1) [LW:7]
- Boston Celtics (2-1) [LW: 5]
- Indiana Pacers (1-2) [LW: 9]
- Utah Jazz (1-2) [LW: 8]
- Houston Rockets (2-1) [LW: 10]
- Memphis Grizzlies (2-1) [LW: 13]
- OKC Thunder (3-0) [LW: 15]
- Detroit Pistons (2-1) [LW: 11]
- Charlotte Hornets (2-1) [LW: 12]
- Atlanta Hawks (2-0) [LW: 18]
- Chicago Bulls (2-0) [LW: 20]
- Minnesota Timberwolves (0-2) [LW: 14]
- Washington Wizards (0-2) [LW: 16]
- Denver Nuggets (1-1) [LW: 22]
- Miami Heat (1-2) [LW: 19]
- New York Knicks (1-1) [LW: 17]
- Sacramento Kings (2-1) [LW: 24]
- Dallas Mavericks (0-3) [LW: 21]
- New Orleans Pelicans (0-3) [LW: 26]
- Milwaukee Bucks (1-2) [LW: 25]
- Los Angeles Lakers (1-2) [LW: 28]
- Philadelphia 76ers (0-2) [LW: 29]
- Phoenix Suns (0-3) [LW: 27]
- Orlando Magic (0-3) [LW: 23]
- Brooklyn Nets (1-2) [LW: 30]