Stuck in the middle – should the NBA’s mediocre teams go all in or tank?

Stuck in the middle – should the NBA’s mediocre teams go all in or tank?
Raj Mehta / USA TODAY Sports / Darren Abate / AP / NBAE / Getty / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington

With the first few weeks of the season well underway, there’s been some confirmation of teams that have no hopes or aspirations to compete. In a league that rewards the ‘title or tank’ mentality, mediocrity and half-arsed contention is the least gratifying place for a team to find itself.

For those teams stuck in no-man’s land, it’s time to ask whether they should make push to improve in the here and now (and risk their future) or put their ambition to bed and blow it up. With the league standings starting to paint a clearer picture of the strong, the weak and the ‘caught in-between’, where do the ambitious non-contenders go from here?

San Antonio Spurs

Verdict: Tank

Last missing out on the playoffs in 1997, the San Antonio Spurs have been the most consistently strong team since the turn of the millennium, however, their roster has lacked title quality since Kawhi Leonard went down injured in May 2017, kick-starting the following trade saga and the depreciation of the Spurs’ ambitions. Remarkably, they still managed to reach the playoffs with an impressive 48-34 record last season. This year, the Spurs are 7-14 and look destined the miss out on the playoffs all together.

With ageing assets like DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge providing most of their punch, at a combined $54 million (this season), the Spurs should look to move on by accumulating young players or picks in return for their top earners, while they still have value around the league. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported in mid-November that the Magic were interested in acquiring DeRozan. If the Spurs could acquire some combination of picks, Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon plus salary filler, they should jump at the opportunity to let their leading scorer go.

The key question for the Spurs is will they try and remain semi-competitive for the last season/s of Greg Popovich’s tenure, to the detriment of their long term aspirations?

Portland Trail Blazers

Verdict: All in

With the calibre of prime Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the roster, this is no time for Portland to rest on their laurels. The Trail Blazers enter the season after an offseason of hefty turnover, particularly for their role players, which contributed to their poor start. Astonishingly, the signing of Carmelo Anthony has given the roster a boost and improved their results, although they still remain out of the playoffs with a negative record.

Lillard is a genuine MVP-level talent who could be the best player on a championship team. So far, the problem has been a lack of support from the rest of the squad, exacerbated by injuries to big men Jusuf Nurkić and Zach Collins. The Blazers have their own future picks available to trade and have salary in Hassan Whiteside ($27 million) and Kent Bazemore ($19 million) to make a trade possible.

If they wanted to really shake things up, they could look to make CJ McCollum available and target someone like Aaron Gordon (Orlando has long desired a guard), Tobias Harris (Philadelphia could use McCollum’s ball handling and shooting) or Khris Middleton and other role players from Milwaukee (although this may lack benefit for Portland).

Detroit Pistons

Verdict: Tank

To be blunt, the Detroit Pistons are one of the most-dull teams in the NBA. They have defined ‘mediocre’ over the past few years, with three first-round 4-0 losses being the highlights of the past 11 years. Their failure has not yielded any fortune-changing reward in the draft, with their highest pick of the decade being Greg Monroe with the seventh pick in 2010, and the most productive drafted players that are still on the roster being Andre Drummond and Luke Kennard.

Crippled by the gargantuan Blake Griffin contract and a lack of surrounding talent, the Pistons have nothing clear to build around. They lack any clear direction and are set for another season on the fringes of the Eastern playoffs.

If there is any way Detroit can relieve themselves of Blake Griffin without giving up significant future assets, they should be ready to pull the trigger. There is a place in the league for role players such as Langston Galloway, Tony Snell (though his $11 million contract is steep) and Reggie Jackson (also overpaid) and Detroit should seek to move on from them if they can regain any future assets, or even to recoup the cap space. The Pistons should turn their hopes from barely scraping an eight seed to increasing their chances of a top pick in the 2020 draft lottery.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Verdict: All in

For the first time since the departure of Jimmy Butler, things are looking up in Minnesota. Entering the season, not many foresaw their strong start or sheer dominance of Karl Anthony Towns. Arguably more surprising has been the rejuvenation of Andrew Wiggins, who is averaging almost 25 points per game and showing signs of fulfilling the star potential that he showed entering the league in 2014.

The roster construction around Towns has so far been criminal, lacking any real fight or playoff expectations. If the Timberwolves don’t start to compete very soon, one has to question when KAT will follow the Kevin Garnett / Anthony Davis trajectory of forcing a trade from his uninspiring team to a title challenger.

The Timberwolves have all of their own future picks, which they could combine with the salary of Gorgui Deng ($16 million) and/or Jeff Teague ($19 million) to make an upgrade at the guard position, with Chris Paul an option if they were looking for a very short-term improvement. Minnesota could throw in young guard Josh Okogie to sweeten any potential deal.

Could the T’wolves make a more drastic turn and trade Wiggins whilst he is at peak value? His huge contract and relatively short-term success makes any trade unlikely to bring back a better player, but it may be worth asking around the league. A Wiggins-DeRozan deal could benefit both teams, but it would take some courage from the Spurs to take on such a substantial deal.

Orlando Magic

Verdict: Tank, sort of

Orlando lacks inspiration. Their roster has lots of individually intriguing and promising pieces, but no guaranteed future All-Star who will take the role of ‘franchise player’ in the way that Luka Dončić and Trae Young have done in the past year in Dallas and Atlanta, respectively.

The Magic have been poor for a while now, failing to make it past the first round since the 2009-10 season. While a total capitulation shouldn’t be on Orlando’s horizon, they should instead favour the ‘micro-tank’ – offloading positive assets like Evan Fournier, Terrance Ross, Al-Farooq Aminu and DJ Augustine for young players with promise, picks or cap space (though Orlando has never been a free agent destination) while still not actively trying to be bad in the long term. They can accumulate future assets over this single season and avoid being one of the worst teams in the league.

It’s very unlikely, but the Magic could move all their chips to the middle and make a move for a Chris Paul / CJ McCollum / Kyle Lowry-esque guard that would signal their intent to put an end to their inadequacy and make a move towards competing right now. The question would be whether the short-term gain of competing outweighs the long-term plans with their current roster potential and future picks.