NBA purgatory is that middling place teams reside in, in which they are nowhere near good enough to seriously contend for a championship, but they also are entirely too good to have any sort of hope at landing one of the top three picks in the NBA’s draft lottery.
It’s an absolutely atrocious place to be, but unfortunately, a huge cross section of the league gets caught up in that space of mediocrity every single season. Ideally, teams on the bubble would determine who and what they are early enough in the season to know whether they should spend the money to compete or bottom out thoroughly enough to land a top prospect, but that’s never how it happens. Too many teams grasp at the delusive phantom of hope.
Typically, there are several teams hovering around the 7-to-11 seeds in their respective conferences by March. But the onset of spring means they have to decide whether they want to make a last-ditch effort to bottom out, or make a run at earning a playoff spot as a stepping stone toward bigger things in the future.
This year, for example, the bottom part of the Eastern Conference playoff picture consists of Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and possibly New York, with only two playoff spots available to split among those six teams. Out West, the current eight-seed Denver Nuggets are only a handful of games up on Sacramento, Minnesota, Portland, Dallas and New Orleans.
Not all of these teams are going to making the playoffs. Not all of them want to.
Sacramento, for example, is only going to see the losses pile up now that they’re living in a world after Boogie. Making the playoffs for them would means surrendering their first-round draft selection to the Chicago Bulls, and that simply is not something they can afford to do now that they have committed to rebuilding.
But that’s the point. Sacramento has committed to rebuilding in enough time to actually improve their draft stock. For the first two-thirds of the season, the idea of the playoffs was at least possible for the Kings if not realistic, but now and for the foreseeable future, they are headed toward a rebuild. They chose a direction and sprinted in toward it.
Philadelphia has done something similar in shutting down both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons for the year. They made an interesting run at things this year, winning more games under Brett Brown than any other season, but they still are not ready for the postseason just yet. After those two players get healthy and the team presumably drafts its franchise point guard this summer, things may change. This year, though, they’ve waved the white flag, and few would argue that it was not the right choice.
As for everybody else, there is less organizational clarity about whether to push forward or optimize draft assets. There are plenty of advantages to sneaking into the bottom portion of the playoff picture, at least for the right kinds of teams. Think Boston a few years ago, making the postseason despite low expectations, or Indiana in the early Paul George years. These were teams with young stars on the verge of something special, and getting that playoff experience, even if it meant a shellacking at the hands of grossly superior rosters, was essential in the development of those teams.
Indiana slowly worked their way to two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014 after being an eight-seed in 2011. Boston made the playoffs in Brad Stevens’ second year of coaching despite very low expectations that year, and now, just two years later, they are a team that gets talked about semi-seriously as title contenders. The playoffs are intense, and no team goes from lottery to Larry O’Brien trophy in just one season. There are experiential baby steps to getting to that point, which is why those 7-seeds and 8-seeds are so important.
Plus, you never know what can happen in a postseason. An 8-seed has made the NBA Finals before, and they probably will again at some point.
But deciding on whether or not to go for it does depend on the team. This year, it’s easy to see how burgeoning young teams with rising stars like those in Milwaukee, Charlotte, Denver, Minnesota, Portland and New Orleans would benefit from making that first step toward credibility. It also is easy to see why Philadelphia and Sacramento have taken the routes they have chosen for themselves.
For other organizations, it’s not so simple. The Miami HEAT, for example, are a team that has far exceeded expectations this year and as such sit just barely out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but this isn’t a group on the verge of breaking toward something special. Making the playoffs would only worsen their draft pick, and despite the overachieving, the HEAT need more elite talent badly if they want to be taken seriously in the playoffs again.
The Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks are in similar boats. They’ve got some talent on the roster, but making the playoffs doesn’t place them on a course toward the NBA Finals. Both teams still need more pieces to have a shot at being great.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls are unique in that they chose not to blow it up at the deadline, and are left with a roster that is flat-out too talented to miss the postseason, but entirely too inconsistent and uninspiring to have any sort of shot in a seven game series against Cleveland or Boston. In a lot of ways, the Bulls are the paradigm right now for NBA purgatory, and their immediate future, which includes a mediocre draft selection and an almost-certain first-round exit, shows why being stuck there is so brutal.
As the playoff picture rounds itself out in the next six weeks, it will be interesting to see which teams really go for it, and even more interesting to see if those are the teams that should be.
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