The 2019-20 season is rounding into form as the final two months of the regular season begin to pan out. While the natural reaction is to pay attention to the contending teams at the top of the standings, it is important to recognize the teams at the very bottom of each conference. Those teams are the Cleveland Cavaliers (16-41) in the East and the Golden State Warriors (12-46) in the West.
It is no secret what has been going on with the Warriors this year. Injuries have decimated this group, as all three of their superstars from their championship runs have gone down or went elsewhere. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson both had devastating injuries in back-to-back games in the NBA Finals. Durant ultimately left the Bay Area and traveled east to Brooklyn.
The Splash Brothers remain, but Stephen Curry hasn’t played since October and the team has stated that Thompson will not play at all this season as he continues his rehab. Curry is aiming to return to the floor after this weekend, but there isn’t anything to play for this late into the season.
Similar to the Warriors losing Durant, the Cavs were dealt a major blow when LeBron James left for the second time. His move to the Los Angeles Lakers was justified after he delivered on a championship for his home city. That trophy came with a cost though, as Cleveland has been in purgatory ever since his departure.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel is one thing, but the Cavs have truly hit rock bottom. It may have been doomed from the start, as they made a surprising move in hiring John Beilein. The 67-year old coach was given a five-year contract, though he had never coached a single game in the NBA. Naturally, the fit was less than ideal and after some serious bumps in the road, the two parted ways after just 54 games.
In the four years that LeBron spent during his second stint in Cleveland, they went to The Finals every single year. In their first season without him last year, they finished 19-63, which was the second-worst record in the league just ahead of the circus in New York.
The Warriors and Cavs met in the Finals in four consecutive years from 2015-18. The Warriors made a fifth consecutive trip last year, where they fell apart against the Toronto Raptors.
Toronto had been the punch line of playoff jokes for a number of years, and for good reason. They always came out of the gate stumbling, losing their first game of a series almost like clockwork. That ended last year when Masai Ujiri made the bold move to acquire Kawhi Leonard. They understood the risk of moving one of their most beloved and loyal players in DeMar DeRozan for what would ultimately be a one-year rental.
That one year is all the Raptors needed though, as they pushed all of their chips towards the middle of the table. These types of bold and risky moves are almost a necessity in today’s game, where you need top-tier talent more than ever. Player empowerment and the “business” of the league can coexist — in the right environment.
We saw a prime example of this even before the Golden State era. Pat Riley has always held this stance and proved it in Miami. After getting LeBron and Chris Bosh to team up with Dwyane Wade, the Miami HEAT were instantly labeled a super team. The players invoked their power, but they also understood the business side of things and made it work.
Riley has swung more deals since that dynasty ended, with Jimmy Butler as his primary focus for the immediate future. Their core looks promising, but Miami will not be patient and wait for everyone to develop. Even as one of the top teams in the East, they are not afraid of cashing in these resources in order to win now, because that is ultimately what this is all about. Winning. Not in a year or two, but now.
No one needs to tell Daryl Morey that, as he has drastically re-shaped his Rockets team seemingly every year. Forget about the future, he is dealing superstars left and right, making any move necessary to prepare his team to win this season.
That approach may be something that has held the Boston Celtics back in recent years. Danny Ainge has been hell-bent on trading away their future draft picks. While incredibly enticing at the time, those picks have now flattened as the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings have improved. The hesitation to deal those future picks for win-now players in their prime may come back to haunt him.
Boston still has an exceptional team loaded with talent, but it just feels as though they are missing something. Obviously, the move for Kyrie Irving didn’t pan out, nor did the acquisition of Al Horford, but their core five players are sensational, and Brad Stevens has shown that he is capable of leading a team to the top of the mountain.
Looking at the team with the best record in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks appear to be doing things right. They have arguably the best player in the game in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is likely to have back-to-back MVP seasons in Milwaukee. They are clearly not a large-market team, but they have been operating like one. They understand the importance of all of the factors surrounding this team.
The number one item at the top of the list is to make Giannis feel like it is a place where he can win. As he enters free agency, the last thing they want him to think is that the grass might be greener someplace else. Mike Budenholzer is considered one of the five best coaches in the league. He has figured out how to use the Greek Freak to his maximum value. Jon Horst and the front office have done a marvelous job of surrounding him with the tools he needs.
The willingness to move on from such a promising young talent like Malcolm Brogdon is evidence that they understand the value of winning right now. If they can use the draft pick they acquired to land another top-level player on this roster, it will pay off in a big way. If anything else, it will show Giannis that they are committed to making any moves necessary to keep him there.
The main storyline heading into this season was the depth and the balance of the league. There were not one or two teams that would reign supreme for the entire season. The Western Conference is absolutely loaded, and things are just as competitive with the top six teams in the Eastern Conference. The area of separation is very slim. The trade deadline has come and gone, but buyout candidates and deals in the summer will be critical to the success of teams this season and next.
The win-now mentality has trickled down from front offices to the players. They each now have the power to drastically alter the landscape of the league.
No one is a safe bet anymore, not even the San Antonio Spurs and their 22-year playoff streak.
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