Mediocre? I Hardly Know Her: The NBA’s Middle Class

In the modern NBA, teams no longer have any desire to be merely above-average. Other than a few stragglers, with owners who foam at the mouth demanding playoff berths OR ELSE, most teams have built their rosters to satisfy one of two directives: win now or do badly enough to secure a high lottery pick.

In practice, however, the win now teams don’t always do much winning (ask whomever from the Knicks PR department is writing up the “Mike Woodson has been a great part of our basketball family” press release) and the intended tankers sometimes make a decent showing out of good coaching and some workable parts (this year’s Phoenix team, which bends space and time by both starting Gerald Green and being a decent bet to make the playoffs.) Simply, some teams that build a team to be bad field what turns out to be a tepid playoff bubble team, and some teams have sitting decision-makers with high preseason hopes who will be joining their players inside of golf carts this May. Here are four of those teams:

New York Knicks

Some middling teams, regardless of their original aims, are now seemingly locked into high-to-non-lottery picks in a notoriously loaded 2014 draft class. The New York Knicks, currently in 11th place in an Eastern Conference where a gang of decommissioned Chuck E Cheese robot performers could probably win a playoff series, aren’t even that lucky, as they relinquished this year’s first round pick as part of the clown car of players and assets they gave Denver for Carmelo Anthony. Carmelo Anthony is a free agent after this season. A free agent whose team cannot seem to win  any games even with him making every shot he takes for weeks at a time. A free agent who commands a higher salary than what the Knicks can offer him. A free agent who can willingly choose not to see Spike Lee in his nightmares any longer, with a change of scenery. Other than that, I’m sure he’ll stay.

Suffice it to say, the situation is grim for the Knicks. During an embarrassing Thursday loss to Miami, the most representative moment of their doomed season arose: schoolyard malcontent JR Smith, who has been wearing a mask during games because of a fractured cheekbone, took the court, only to watch LeBron emerge from the Heat locker room wearing an incredible facial mask of his own. It made him look like Batman with natural powers. This minor moment illustrates the message that the Heat, Pacers and other legitimate title contenders have had for the Knicks since they started their most recent journey through max-contract land: “you can’t sit here.”

Brooklyn Nets

With their brigade of players over 30 with fat contracts, the Nets were assembled as an archetypal “win now” team. With the acquisition of Jason Terry, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, players who more than likely have a heavily used Dwyane Wade voodoo doll under their beds, the Nets seemed like formidable adversaries for some of the conference’s elite. Despite a roster which boasts a total of 37 All Star appearances among its players, the Nets simply could not do anything right in the early part of this season. After their disastrous start, they have bounced back considerably, and are now holding onto the East’s 7th seed. All that means is that if the playoffs started today, they would end in about a week for the Nets, instead of not happening for them at all, and freeing them up to finally read Tuesdays With Morrie, which apparently changed their friend’s life.

The Nets are in an untenable situation here, since they’re not winning a championship and they’ve mortgaged their immediate future on their current assortment of talent. They, like the Knicks, have given up their first-round pick, in a trade that may have netted the Celtics their second lottery selection for 2014. With a reliance on old assets that would make the infrastructure of the Rust Belt blush, the Nets may soon be a team looking to bottom out as soon as their current bloated contractual commitments expire.

Phoenix Suns

If you had asked me who the starting five for the Phoenix Suns were at the beginning of this year, I would have said “Eric Bledsoe, those identical twins that only like to pass to each other, the dunking Gorilla mascot, and a local insurance agent posing as Steve Nash.” Proving basically every prognosticator wrong under the tutelage of new coach Jeff Hornacek, the Suns have been able to put together a surprisingly pleasant-to-watch team, led by borderline All-Star Goran Dragic. They’re currently in the thick of the playoff race in a hyper-competitive Western conference. This is a great story, obviously.

However, there are downsides to this whole “respectability” thing if you’re Phoenix. By holding their heads above water in their attempt to blow things up, the Suns have created a situation where they simultaneously are in no position to seriously compete for a championship, and have no hopes of a high draft pick. If the draft were to take place today, the Suns would pick 21st, a slot that typically produces players like Nolan Smith and Gorgui Dieng, not Messianic Andrew Wiggins types that would promise to take the team over the top. Things in Phoenix are bright overall, though. Their decent play and light contractual commitments will make it easier to lure free agents this summer, and some shrewd moves could push this team further up into the playoff standings next year.

Atlanta Hawks

No discussion of “meh” teams would be complete without the Atlanta Hawks, the most “meh” team of the 21st century. Hawks fans saw year after year of ho-hum early playoff exits led by their uninterestingly named fringe All-Stars, Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. The Hawks finally let go of both players and looked to start anew… by creating another really “meh” roster led by a fringe All Star, this time somewhat more interestingly named Paul Millsap. This year, though, the Hawks are having problems settling into their familiar 5th seed and are in grave danger of falling out of the East’s playoff bracket, which takes a lot. The team has no young players who have shown star potential, and they have not been able to lure any high-profile free agents in recent memory. It is almost as if the world is only held in order by the textureless and flavor-free existence of the Atlanta Hawks, and they’re selflessly keeping away from meaningful success for the good of all. Or something.

The Hawks would hold the 15th selection in the draft if it were held today. In recent years, this pick has netted teams such players as Austin Daye, Robin Lopez, and Larry Sanders. In other words, maybe a decent starter, maybe Austin Daye. But not typically someone who’s going to make you stop being “meh.” The other teams mentioned here are either going somewhere awful or somewhere promising.  The Atlanta Hawks are going nowhere in particular, which might be the worst predicament of all: the perpetual B- student, with no discernible skills, in a sea of straight-A brainiacs and F students who paint graffiti and blaze up in the bathroom.