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The NBA’s evaporating middle-class


Somewhere in Vermont…


A five mile’s drive outside of Burlington, a stoned Bernie Sanders stews inside his picturesque log cabin home. He’d be able to hear the deer playing and the birds singing if it weren’t for his decaying ears and cable news pumped to Vol. 100.


He’s just stumbled upon an infographic on ESPN while flipping between CNN and Fox that has all 30 NBA teams, ranked in order of their records.


He notices a horrifying thing.


There’s no middle-class in the NBA.


His snugly rolled joint drops from hand to ground, right next to season three of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the Blu-Ray edition—his 67th birthday present.


End scene.



OK, so there’s no middle-class except Charlotte. And maybe Detroit. Who knows what the Knicks are up to. The point is, right now there are 30 teams...

  • Eight of which (Orlando, Chicago, Memphis, Dallas, Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta, Brooklyn) are within two games of the worst record in the league. The first seven are tanking. The Nets have no interest in tanking because Paul Pierce, but are still in the NBA’s lower-class.

  • There are 16 teams that are currently in the playoffs (duh), and all have some sort of direction. (I.E. There is no team happy to squeak in and get their doors blown off.) Every general manager of those 16 teams could sit down and provide you with a competent blueprint to the next 10 years of their franchise. Some will work. Some will not. The point is, as with the tankers, there is a direction.

  • That leaves six teams (Charlotte, New York, Detroit, Utah, and both L.A. teams) to make up the league’s theoretical middle-class. But we can cross off Utah (smart owners, front office and coach with a rising rookie fighting like hell to make the playoffs) and both the L.A. franchises (one with a good core of young guys, the other freed of Blake Griffin’s contract, both with massive salary space in an attractive market).

  • Now we’re looking at the hopeless flounderers: Charlotte, which has drafted Adam Morrison, Frank Kaminsky, Noah Vonleh, Cody Zeller, Brandon Wright and D.J. Augustin in the top-10 since 2006; Detroit, which redefined swinging-for-the-fences with the Blake Griffin trade; and New York, a dumpster fire of a team so stupid it actually tried to make the playoffs in the final year before 2019’s lottery reform.

In 2004, perhaps the worst year on record in the Eastern Conference’s inferior history, fourth-seeded Miami was 42-40, No. 5 seed New Orleans was 41-41, sixth-seeded Milwaukee was 41-41, seventh-seeded New York was 39-43 and eight-seeded Boston was 36-46(!).


Miami won the title two years later, New Orleans hasn’t won a playoff series since, Milwaukee remained mediocre until Giannis showed up, and the Celtics…….


To have a team ten games below .500 with one mid-tier star make the playoffs shows where the league’s conscious was in 2004: Just get in and see what happens. (The Great Tankathon of 1998 for Tim Duncan came and passed and, for whatever reason, didn’t shake up the landscape the way one might think.) For virtually the entire current NBA, it never would have gotten to the point it did for the 2004 Celtics; 40 games in, a re-evaluation would have happened. Paul Pierce may have been traded, the coach would have been dumped, an asset sale would have happened quickly. Ricky Davis? Gone. Chucky Atkins, Mark Blount, Vin Baker, all gone, for anything besides nothing.


Instead, that Boston team won six in a row after the all-star break and talked itself into the playoffs, only to be laughed off the court when they did. (They were swept by a 61-win Indiana team.)



Even stranger: The general manager that season was Danny Ainge, in his second year. He stood for one more year of mediocrity the next season—this time losing to the Pacers in seven games—then sat Pierce as a healthy scratch in ‘06-07, bottomed out, and turned a top-five pick in 2007 into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. He won a championship, then had the gall to blow it all up in 2013 when he correctly felt mediocrity coming.


It could be argued that his 2013 heist of Brooklyn set the tone for the league’s current direction-driven format. Since, the NBA has endured Sam Hinkie’s if-you’re-not-first-you’re-last philosophy, a reluctance with the super-max, advanced analytics, and this logical mess we’re in now.


The coming draft reform, which will decentivize teams to flat-out suck, will change all of this. But Adam Silver can’t do anything this season, so enjoy the truly strange marvel of teams anchoring themselves to rock bottom in hopes of becoming the next Golden State, while Golden State fends off the elite.

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