This is the time of year when the “T” word gets thrown around a lot.
Most of the league is suddenly — or not so suddenly — realizing that it does not have much of a playoff future. The rest of the season becomes about positioning for the Draft Lottery. A horrible and depressing race to the bottom to get the most ping pong balls and the best chance at bouncing back quickly through those incredibly valuable and cheap rookie contracts.
That is the surest way to get back to the top of the NBA — bottom out and hope to strike rich by stockpiling young talent and draft picks. It is a strategy that works if you can draft and scout well. And it takes luck.
Long-time NBA fans recognize this as a viable method for rebuilding to get to a championship level. The casual fan that is buying tickets may not think that way. All they see is losing and that tends to keep them away from the stadium. You don’t see many bottom-feeding teams selling out their stadiums.
Fans get apathetic as the teams racing to the bottom. Do this consistently enough and you turn the fans off and you completely alienate your base. No success for long periods of time leads to the huge financial disparity the league claimed that caused that little lockout a few months ago. Some teams do have to eschew the race to the bottom and take their chance at making the Playoffs, even if it means being stuck in the dreaded middle class and being “mediocre” for a few years.
Teams that are just outside the Playoffs face this difficult decision around the trade deadline and have to take the gamble. Is the team ready to begin the Playoff seasoning or does the team go back to the Lottery and try to get that next draft pick.
Two Eastern Conference teams are testing out where these two theories of rebuilding will take them.
Cleveland and Milwaukee both had decisions to make at the trade deadline. On March 15, the Bucks sat at 19-24, tied for the final Playoff spot in the East with the Knicks. The Cavaliers were 10th, two games back of the Bucks at 16-25. There was certainly still a chance to make the postseason if the team came together in the right way or the team added the right piece.
But Milwaukee and Cleveland went in completely opposite directions.
The Bucks traded former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut, sitting on their bench recouping from an injury that knocked him out nearly a dozen games into the season, to the Warriors for Monta Ellis, a proven scorer and borderline All Star that could come in and make an impact for the team one way or another.
The Cavaliers, on the other hand, took the opposite tactic. They traded backup point guard and part-time shooting guard Ramon Sessions to the Lakers to help in their Playoff and title push. Cleveland opted to play the lottery one more time rather than go for the Playoff push, refusing to give up assets to get over the hump and opting even to take on draft picks and free up time for young, unproven players.
In other words, Cleveland opted to tank. That is, for lack of a better term, what the Cavaliers have done. And going 1-5 since the trades certainly suggests Cleveland has stopped caring about the final results of games — even with Kyrie Irving continuing to put up big numbers and keep his status as the favorite for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award.
Yet, you could argue the Cavaliers are putting themselves in a better position to compete and win in the long term and stick to their post-LeBron James recovery plan.
Irving looks like he will blossom into a star in the league, so now it is about building the right pieces around him. Tristan Thompson has shown flashes of his potential throughout the season. But largely veteran players like Antawn Jamison and even Ramon Sessions do not seem to fit into the long-term plan.
By trading Sessions, Cleveland cleared $8.8 million over the next two years (with Sessions’ player option for next season) and acquired a future first round draft pick. The Cavaliers strategy, it seems, is to continue stockpiling draft picks to build a new team from scratch around Irving.
“[Cavaliers general manager Chris] Grant and owner Dan Gilbert have a solid plan,” Shaun Powell of NBA.com writes. “It’s all about the Draft, all about stockpiling young talent and hoping it turns into assets to be kept or traded. It’s the only logical way to go if you’re a city that can’t offer sunshine, tax-free paychecks or world-class nightlife to entice the top free agents. Cleveland certainly isn’t alone in that regard, but the plight of the Cavs became that much more magnified in the LeBron James drama, when Dwyane Wade told LeBron that he wasn’t coming to Cleveland. You know what happened next.
“By trading Sessions, the Cavs now have two first-rounders in June (their own plus the Lakers’) and a second-rounder from New Orleans, which is like a late first-rounder. In the future, they also have a conditional first-rounder from the Kings that could come about by 2016, along with a pair of firsts from Miami.”
OK, the plan seems clear then. Make Cleveland a desirable place to play by getting the building blocks through the draft. And when the team is ready, bundle those assets together to get that last piece to get them over the top. That is what the Thunder have done. But it does not come without risks.
Cleveland could be losing for another two or three years before the team is ready to take that step. Do fans keep packing Quicken Loans Arena in the meantime?
This must have been going through Milwaukee’s head when the team took the opposite tactic and took the risk of going for broke for what is likely a low playoff seed. The Bucks are playing under somewhat different circumstances.
Milwaukee has made the Playoffs just once in the last six years and has not been out of the first round since an Eastern Conference Finals run 2001.
Perhaps seeing Brandon Jennings already eying someplace outside Milwaukee or simply tired of playing the lottery, the Bucks went all in for the 2012 Playoffs in trading for Monta Ellis. This was a calculated risk as Ellis and Jennings are due to become free agents in 2013 together — Ellis on an early termination option, Jennings on a qualifying offer. So a quick rebuild is something Milwaukee could do if this two-year Playoff gambit fails.
The question then stays with the fans.
Are the fans of Cleveland going to be patient and wait the necessary time — let alone, trust management — to build that title-contending team and suffer through the losses? Are the fans of Milwaukee going to be satisfied with a mediocre team that sneaks into the Playoffs every year with little hope of winning a championship?
These questions are likely just as important as the larger question of the yearly race to the bottom at this point in the NBA season.