It’s one of those NBA narratives that we really want to be true: A young team needs playoff experience to become a championship club. Like the Pistons and Bulls of the 1980s and early ’90s, teams are supposed to learn about the intensity of the postseason — and the focus required to win — through character-building losses to superior veteran teams.
Defeats as a lower seed harden a team and eventually lead to wins as a better seed — and, hopefully, to a Finals appearance and a championship. That’s one reason fans of the Pacers, Bobcats, Grizzlies, Sixers, Rockets, Suns, Bucks, Jazz, Nuggets and Warriors will be cheering hard for their team to squeak into the playoffs in April, even it results in a first-round sweep. This feeling might be even stronger this season, as we head toward what experts consider one of the weakest drafts in recent memory; a playoff spot might be more valuable than a late lottery pick, in pure basketball terms, without even considering the extra revenue involved.
But here’s the thing: There haven’t been many teams over the last decade-plus that have really followed the Pistons/Bulls developmental path in a coherent way. That doesn’t mean there is no such path, of course. It’s just to say that if I were a fan of a borderline playoff team, I’m not sure I’d root for a playoff spot over the slim chance of moving up in the lottery — not even this season.
When you examine the low playoff seeds of the last dozen or so seasons, you see a few types of teams:
• The Veterans Staying Afloat team
This is the team that was really good a few seasons ago and is hanging on to playoff status with an aging core. Examples include the Jazz of 2001-02 and 2002-03 (the end of the Stockton/Malone era); the Kings of 2004-05 and 2005-06 (first-round losers without Chris Webber but with the core of the Webber-era teams and a few random Bonzi Wells-types sprinkled in); and the Nets of the mid-2000s, who had one good season with the Richard Jefferson/Vince Carter/Jason Kidd core (2005-06, when they went 49-33) but were basically floundering around pointlessly.
Very rarely, an “Afloat” team can develop into a legitimate contender without entering the lottery. The Pacers of the early 2000s are the best recent example of this unusual type, as they transitioned from the Reggie Miller era into the Jermaine O’Neal era, peaking with 61 wins in 2003-04 before the brawl in Detroit derailed everything.
But mostly, these teams are just wasting their time in the big picture. Let me be clear: That is not to say they are dumb for making the playoffs or for not trading their veteran guys for pennies on the dollar. It’s just reality.
With the Nuggets and Jazz suddenly in semi-rebuilding stages, the best current example of an Afloat team might be Phoenix. In two or three seasons, we might include the Hawks here.
• The Going Nowhere Team
This is a team that seems to have a solid nucleus in place but never advances far in the playoffs or puts together a 50-plus-win regular season. These teams putter along as first- or second-round losers — non-factors, really — until a major shakeup either lands them in the lottery or turns them into contenders.
Good examples include the Pistons from 1998-99 through 2001-02 (ho-hum teams until they landed Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups before the 2002-03 season); the Eddie Jordan-era Wizards (never won more than 45 games, have since detonated and drafted John Wall); the Tracy McGrady-era Magic (first-round losers for three straights seasons before imploding and getting Dwight Howard in the 2004 draft); the Scott Skiles-era Bulls (advanced to the second round in 2006-07 after two straight first-round losses but needed to collapse and land Derrick Rose — and then Joakim Noah – to really become relevant); and the post-Shaq Lakers (who were mediocre and lost in the first round for two straight years until Kobe Bryant threw a mini-tantrum and the team dealt for Pau Gasol).
There are many, many other examples; league history is littered with Going Nowhere teams, most of which required some radical transformation — and not some magical “playoff experience” dust — to develop further. Most never really developed at all.
The best current example of this might be the Bobcats (if they make it, which seems unlikely with Gerald Wallace gone), or perhaps the Sixers and Hawks, who have to hope their paths go in a different direction.
• The Random Blip team
The team that makes the postseason once with a random collection of talent in an ultimately meaningless exercise in pseudo-success. Examples include the 2003-04 Knicks (39-43, the only playoff berth in a decade); the Stephon Marbury/Amar’e Stoudemire Suns; and the 2001-02 SuperSonics with Gary Payton, Vin Baker and a young Rashard Lewis.
No current team really has this feel, though the Hornets could qualify if things go horribly wrong with Chris Paul, and Houston could as well given its uncertain foundation. Milwaukee fans have to hope last year’s team doesn’t fall into this category.
• The Pistons/Bulls Developmental Path
This is the ideal. There are examples of teams that have gone through this experience, to some degree. Losing tough five-game first-rounders in both 1998-99 and 1999-2000 set the stage for the greatest era in the Kings’ Sacramento history, though the Webber heist was probably more important in their ascendancy. Losses to Detroit in 2006-07 (first round) and 2007-08 (second round) provided key experience for Orlando’s Howard-Lewis-Jameer Nelson core before its Finals appearance in 2009. Again, though, the drafting of Howard is the central event here.
All of those first-round losses after the drafting of Carmelo Anthony in 2003 may have propelled the Nuggets to finally break through in 2008-09, though I tend to think the Chauncey Billups/Allen Iverson trade that season was more important.
The Hawks gained confidence from pushing Boston to seven games in 2007-08 and have been perennial 50-game winners since, though they have not gotten past the second round yet. Chicago’s seven-game blood bath against Boston the following year gave Rose and Noah some playoff exposure, and the Thunder’s tough six-gamer against the Lakers last season did the same for that team.
But lottery picks were far more important in the cases of both the Bulls and Thunder than those first-round losses. Playoff experience is nice; snagging Rose and Kevin Durant in the lottery really makes a franchise. Combining both the lottery talent and the playoff experience — as Chicago and Oklahoma City have done, and as Detroit and Chicago did in the 1980s (with Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan as the lottery foundations) — seems to be the real winning combination.
The Grizzlies and perhaps the Sixers (if you’re being very optimistic) might be the current teams closest to following this blueprint, though neither fits the template perfectly. For a team young like the Pacers, without a top-of-the-lottery talent, a sampling of the playoffs ultimately might not mean much, even if fans are excited about it now.
But you never know when a team will make the playoffs and hit another gear, in terms of play and confidence. That’s what makes things fun.
10 THINGS I LIKE AND DON’T LIKE
The Knicks made a show of Carmelo Anthony's arrival in New York. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
1. The Knicks, introducing ‘Melo
Let me note first that I have been supportive — if tentatively so — of the Knicks’ deal for Carmelo Anthony. But the introductory news conference on the MSG Network was an over-the-top love-fest in which Al Trautwig, a longtime MSG guy who is generally good at his job, called the ‘Melo acquisition “the biggest trade in NBA history” (probably in reference to the number of players involved, but still) and asked co-host Kelly Tripucka, “How big can this team dream now?” (Answer: A first-round exit until it adds more pieces in the offseason.)
Knicks owner James Dolan topped things off by specifically thanking Anthony’s wife, the reality star LaLa Vasquez, in what may have been the lowest moment in franchise history.
New York’s p.r. staff is one of the best in the league, so this is not on them. Nor is it on the media in attendance, which asked good and tough questions. I get that introductory news conferences are supposed to be celebratory, but the level of hyperbole here was a little much. Nothing will ever top the Heat’s exercise in self-love, though.
2. Danilo Gallinari, sprinting
Some NBA players are so gifted they look calm and under control even when exerting an urgent level of energy. Not Gallinari. When he gets out in transition, Gallinari looks like a weekend warrior summoning every bit of speed he can — his head goes down, his legs start churning, his knees come up higher and he body bobs up and down much more than normal. Always entertaining to watch.
3. Big Baby’s jumper slump
I wrote on Friday that the big Boston-Oklahoma City deal was as much about the Celtics’ faith in Glen Davis as anything else. He’s going to log starter-level minutes now, and the Celtics value his ability to stretch the floor — something Kendrick Perkins can’t do, and something Boston needs from its four other guys when Rajon Rondo is at the point.
But Davis, in his most jumper-happy season yet, isn’t connecting as well as he has in the past. He’s shooting only 34.7 percent on long two-point jumpers, one of the worst marks in the league among players who take a lot of shots from this range. Of the 57 players averaging at least 3.5 long two-point attempts per game (Davis is at 4.5), only John Wall, Andray Blatche, Tyreke Evans and John Salmons have hit a lower percentage, per Hoopdata. The league on average shoots about 39 percent from this range, and Davis hit 41 percent two seasons ago.
The optimist would note that the difference between shooting 35 percent and 41 percent amounts to only one extra basket every three or four games. The pessimist would note that every possession is crucial in the playoffs, and that teams will defend Boston differently if Davis proves unreliable as a shooter. Stay tuned.
4. Jason Williams and Hamed Haddadi
In all the analysis of the Hasheem Thabeet/Shane Battier trade and the Grizzlies’ recent moves, few of us gave enough space to the sheer entertainment value of Williams running pick-and-rolls with a 7-2 guy who has barely played in the league — and whose teammates (particularly Tony Allen) react to each of his baskets with a championship-level celebration. It won’t happen in the playoffs, so cherish the moments we have now of Haddadi trying to catch lefty behind-the-back passes in traffic.
5. Mike Dunleavy, done for 6-8 weeks
It’s not just that Dunleavy’s broken thumb took his expiring contract off the trade market. It’s also that Indiana’s most commonly used lineup — Dunleavy, Darren Collison, Danny Granger, Josh McRoberts and Roy Hibbert — has been among the league’s best high-usage lineups, outscoring opponents by a whopping 14 points per 100 possessions in about 440 minutes together.
Toss Brandon Rush into Dunleavy’s place, and that lineup has tanked (a scoring margin of minus-8 per 100 possessions in 152 minutes of court time). Ditto for Paul George.
With sample sizes of less than a full season, it’s always possible the numbers are just a fluky coincidence. But pay attention to how coach Frank Vogel juggles his lineups now, with Indiana battling the Bobcats for the East’s final playoff spot.
6. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, working together
Sunday’s Lakers-Thunder game was fascinating to watch. The Thunder were clearly confident that Westbrook could attack Kobe Bryant on pick-and-rolls, and they ran that play to death in the first half. And you could see Durant becoming frustrated; at one point during a Westbrook-dominant stretch, Durant came open at the top of the arc as Westbrook dribbled on the wing, and he began hopping and waving his arms to get the ball.
Westbrook didn’t pass, and Durant stopped hopping, deflated. Having two great players is fantastic, obviously, but the Thunder are still figuring out how to find the tricky balance between a scoring point guard and a scoring wing player.
One thing I like: When the Thunder call quick-moving side pick-and-rolls, where Durant sets a screen for Westbrook — usually on the right side. Durant will usually slip the screen and fade to the baseline, where he loves to shoot jumpers. The easy response for the defense is to switch, but that allows Durant to shoot over a smaller guy. If they don’t switch, Durant often gets enough space for an open look or a drive to the hoop.
7. The Early-Oop!
Matt Harpring falls into Heinsohn-ian levels of homerism as the analyst on Utah’s local telecast, but I’ve grown to like his nickname for the Earl Watson-to-Jeremy Evans alley-oop, which these two guys seem to hit at least once in every game Evans plays.
The fun thing about this play is that every defense surely knows it’s coming because Watson and Evans try it a lot and Evans has no other reliable offensive weapon at this point. And yet it still works.
8. ‘Melo and Stoudemire, figuring it out
It’s going to be fun to watch ‘Melo and Amar’e (and Mike D’Antoni’s staff) work to debunk the notion that these two guys – one an isolation juggernaut and the other a pick-and-roll beast – won’t mesh well on offense. One thing I’ve noticed already: The Knicks are running a set that starts with a Chauncey Billups-Amar’e pick-and-roll on the left side, where Amar’e rolls to the hoop and Billups dribbles around the screen and toward the foul line.
That’s a deadly first option on its own. But as Billups arrives near the foul line, Anthony darts over and sets a second screen for Billups to use right as the defense is figuring out what to do about the Amar’e pick-and-roll.
Stuff like this has lots of potential. The evolution is going to be fun.
9. Sacramento’s transition defense
The Kings are bad, and nothing they did this season was going to change that. But for a team of young guys trying to carve out NBA careers to play such hideous transition defense is inexcusable. Sure, the Kings are young, and they crash the offensive glass hard, but performances like Saturday’s no-show against the Grizzlies shouldn’t happen. And that wasn’t an isolated incident; the Kings rank 23rd in points allowed per possession on opponent transition chances, according to the stat-tracking service Synergy Sports.
10. Nene’s passing
Here’s another guy who has to do more now that the trade deadline has passed. And I’m a bit skeptical that Nene, always high-turnover player, can do it by working a ton as a post-up scorer.
But he’s a beast as a screener on pick-and-roll plays — or as a cutter behind the roll man on those plays. He has also flashed potential as a quick-hitting passer, and he should get more chances to dish if he plays smart and within the team context. He’s a good interior passer, and he threw a one-handed cross-court pass from near the three-point arc to a spot-up shooter in the opposite corner the other night that made rewind my DVR a few times.