The Middle Land

“There is only one Lord of the Ring, only one who can bend it to his will. And he does not share power.”

-Gandalf

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The Middle Land: the worst place to be in the world of NBA basketball. As a longtime fan of the Atlanta Hawks, I know how it feels. Every season rolls in and out and you still have zero reasons to cheer. It can feel like being a hobbit stuck between the battles of great powers on their quest for the ring. 

Before I continue, I must define this desert of a place.  Just what is this NBA Middle Land?  It is the most populated place in all of the NBA. Many NBA franchises don’t even know that they are stuck here.  Some, like the Atlanta Hawks, are simply in denial or look just good enough to sell tickets without winning it all.

The Middle Land is that place where a franchise sits without both the hope of winning a championship and the hope of landing a high lottery pick and finding a franchise-changing player.

How does a franchise find a beachfront property in the Middle Land?  There are four common themes:

1. No superstar or All-Star caliber players on the team.

The NBA has always been a star driven league whether the league and its franchises believe it or not.  Lebron James’ 2010 ‘The Decision’ changed the way free agents and teams approach free agency: following James’ free agency in 2010 and Dwight Howard’s free agency in 2013, the league froze, waiting to find out where the biggest names would call home before deciding to either build their teams to try to beat the next new super-team or tear down the ship.

Most teams that successfully build super teams and are thrust into contention have at least one superstar already in place, multiple All-Stars, or even a young budding star to build around. Some teams who seemed destined for the middle (Warriors) had players who overcame injuries and became generational talents.  Another advantage of star talent when looking to rebuild is the option to trade a star to kick-start the process (hello Timberwolves). Without any star players and/or future assets to package in return for good players, a franchise risk getting stuck in the Middle Land.

2. Overvaluation of average players.

When teams venture down rebuild road, their GM must have a realistic grasp of the market value of the team’s current players.  Less successful GM’s tend to overvalue players based on familiarity with their fit on a current team, as opposed to basing players’ values on how they can help their team specifically. For example, the Brooklyn Nets were taken advantage of in their blockbuster trade with the Celtics for KG, Pierce, and Jason Terry because Ainge knew what he could get for the aging big three, despite the fact that he also knew they were no longer championship caliber talents. 

Another pitfall occurs when teams fear that they will lose fans if they trade fan favorites. Chandler Parsons’ contract with the Mavericks was a fun success story, but he should never be your highest paid player – history has shown that a team can not compete if their best player would only be a third option on another contender.  The Hawks are a prime example of this short-coming: their older key players – particularly Paul Millsap, who is 31-years-old and is due to be a free agent next year – could be traded to gather young pieces or draft picks.  Milsap is coming off one of his best seasons as a pro and would be a great third option and defensive anchor for a team trying to reach the next level.

Unfortunately, the Hawks risk losing him for nothing next year or watching as his production drops off, or both.  Instead of trying to create a younger squad, the Hawks reached for a star in Dwight Howard to pair with Millsap and then lost Al Horford to Boston in free agency.  The Hawks had an opportunity to deal Horford at the deadline last season in return for building block and draft picks: Now have older players with little chance of winning a title – the Middle Land.   Two years in a row, the Hawks found that they are not a match for LeBron James in the Eastern Conference.  Why not get younger and rebuild?

The Hawks could have followed the Celtics’ model and hit reset – two years later ,the Celtics are arguably the most asset rich team in the league, and only one trade away from being legitimate contenders to rival the Cavs in the Eastern Conference.  They used one of their Nets’ picks to select Jaylen Brown at number three in the draft, and now have multiple paths to contention; meanwhile, the Hawks look more and more likely to suffer through four or five more years of the middle land before breaking this team apart.

3. Impatience

This is the reason for the majority of Middle Land franchises.  A franchise hits big on a draft pick and then rush to add pieces to fit around them that may not fit next to their new star player – a la Lebron’s first Cavs stint.  Other teams that are impatient with their young stars and rush their teams’ development often find out their young player doesn’t develop into a superstar because of poor development, injuries, or misevaluation.

4. But not too much patience

Teams looking to rebuild may have to accept the possibility that clearing talent and aiming for the highest draft pick possible may be the best route to contention. The risks are significant and require some important decisions. Going “all in” like former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie could also lead to unforeseen consequences, like league push back.  A rebuild should be methodical and effective, without being a coordinated multi-season tank debacle. Look at how the league front offices responded to the Lakers’ tank compared to that of the 76ers – a team needs to at least appear to be trying to win soon after initiating a rebuild to ensure that the league doesn’t turn the Eye of Silver upon your rebuilding efforts. 

eye of silver

“Says Rockets GM Daryl Morey, Hinkie’s former boss in Houston: “The common refrain I’ve heard is that [Hinkie] is taking the easy way out and taking advantage of the rules. The league chooses to give the most valuable asset in the game — a high draft pick — to the worst team.”

Now consider this: The Lakers won 17 games this season, and their prized rookie, D’Angelo Russell, secretly filmed a conversation in which he asked teammate Nick Young about being with women other than his then-fiancée, Iggy Azalea. Yet no one blamed that incident on the organization’s culture the way Okafor’s troubles were linked to The Process.

By stepping in and facilitating the Jerry Colangelo move in Philadelphia, then, Silver sent a message: Gross incompetence is acceptable; strategic gaming of a flawed system is not.”

The man who just can’t win: Sam Hinkie (finally) speaks, Jordan Brenner

 

Middle Land Teams

Which teams populate the middle land? A lot of these teams are known for poor management, aging stars, and/or bad luck with injuries – a mix of the four characteristics above.  Now that Kevin Durant has joined the Golden State Warriors, do teams like the Grizzlies, the Mavericks, the Magic, or the Wizards truly have the ability to contend against juggernauts like Cleveland and Golden State? 

More teams are stuck in the Middle Land than any other time in NBA history: at a time like this, rebuilding is often the best option.  Teams will find success in their futures by growing strong while the powerful battle it out, rising from the ashes they left behind. 

By Jeremy Johnson