Friday, October 26, 2012

Hello Brooklyn: Welcome to the Modified Mediocrity Treadmill

By Charlie Scaturro

Source: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images North America

With all due respect to Dwight Howard landing in LA (and engaging in an awkward yet entertaining pissing contest with Shaq), and LeBron’s quest for back-to-back titles, the biggest story in the NBA at the start of the 2012-13’ season as far as I’m concerned is the Nets landing in Brooklyn. By now we’ve all heard about the Barclays Center, Jay-Z’s involvement with the team, and their new logo/uniforms, but in just a couple of days this team will actually step on a basketball court and start playing meaningful games (so much for just selling trendy merchandise and enjoying the warm glow that accompanies being the first professional sports team in Brooklyn since the 1950’s).

All of the fanfare and hype that has surrounded the Nets move to Brooklyn up to this point will begin to matter less and less as we begin to focus on, you know, the actual product Billy King and Mikhail Prokhorov have put on the court.

With the hype building about their move to Brooklyn, and this team coming off an irrelevant 22-44 season, there was absolutely no way the Nets could give their franchise a facelift with the likes of DeShawn Stevenson, Gerald Green, Jordan Williams, Sundiata Gaines, and MarShon Brooks leading the way (yes, this is the actual starting five they trotted out for the last game of the 2011-12’ season). While Gerald Wallace, Deron Williams, and Kris Humphries were sitting out of the Nets finale in Jersey this past April with ailments like “sore right calves,” and “bruised right toes,” the front office was planning to make a splash to ensure they were relevant when they made the move to Brooklyn.

Rightfully not wanting to move into their new digs with DeShawn Stevenson being the most recognizable player in their starting five, which would be akin to wearing sweatpants to a black tie event, the Nets went on a spending spree.

- They locked up Deron Williams for five years and roughly $100 million, ensuring that the trade which brought him to the Nets wasn’t a complete waste of resources and tradable assets.

- They traded for the last four years and $89 million left on Joe Johnson’s “I can’t believe the Hawks gave him that much money” contract so Williams would have another playmaker in the lineup.

- They gave Gerald Wallace a four-year, $40 million extension, which at the very least pacified fans who groaned when the Nets gave up a lottery pick in a stacked draft to acquire Wallace.

- They re-signed Brook Lopez to a four-year, $60 million deal to give the team a credible inside scoring threat (even if he’s 7’0’’ and averaged 5.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game his last full season in the NBA).

- They re-signed Kris Humphries to a two-year $24 million deal because…well, they needed a guy who could rebound…

Source: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images North America
In total, the Nets spent over $300 million dollars on five players so this team would be relevant and exciting when they officially opened the doors to the Barclays Center on November 1st. And there’s little doubt that this front office had to do this as they prepared for their grand entrance to Brooklyn. Maybe they didn’t go so far as to screen their phone calls a la George Costanza, but the Nets essentially hamstrung their future cap flexibility to put a playoff team on the court right now.

And the Nets should be just that for the next few seasons. Williams is one of the best players in the NBA. Joe Johnson, although he gets a lot of grief about not being worth the massive contract he signed a few years ago, is still a very good wing. Gerald Wallace gives the Nets a tough, defensive presence who can guard multiple positions. And Lopez, for all his perceived flaws, is a pretty damn good center in a league that’s starved for talented bigs at the moment. Especially in the Eastern Conference, these four players and a decent supporting cast make the Nets a good team, but I can’t help but look at the Nets as they’re currently constructed and think that they’re an example of the “modified mediocrity treadmill”.

The “mediocrity treadmill” is essentially an NBA team that’s bad enough to miss the playoffs, but too good to be picking at the top of the draft. This cycle of mediocrity sees such a team miss out on the postseason consistently, but never puts them in position to grab one of the top college players come late June. Instead, this team posts win totals of around 33-40 and never has a chance to land a player that can turn their franchise around. They're generally forced to settle for solid role players with their draft picks, and the mediocrity treadmill continues to turn.

While the Nets current roster certainly isn’t in such dire straights, they’re starting to look a lot like a team destined to ride what I’m terming the “modified mediocrity treadmill” for the next few seasons. The modified mediocrity treadmill is exactly what the Atlanta Hawks of the last five seasons have come to embody; a team consistently good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to seriously contend for a championship (it’s ironic that Joe Johnson was one of the stars of those Atlanta teams).

During the last five seasons dating back to 2007-08’, the Hawks have posted a respectable 221-173 record (.539 winning percentage), and have made the playoffs each season. Of these five playoff appearances, the Hawks advanced past the first round three times, but never made it past the Conference Semis. Furthermore, in their three trips to the Conference Semis, the Hawks posted a record of 2-12 against their opponents; getting swept by the Cavaliers in 2009 and Magic in 2010, and losing to the Bulls 4-2 this past season.

Source: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America
Often picking late in the first round, these teams on the modified mediocrity treadmill have very little chance of landing a player who can help the team, and even if they did, there probably wouldn’t be enough minutes for such a player on a team that’s “contending”. And this is where I believe the Nets find themselves as they enter the 2011-12’ NBA season with four players locked into big contracts.

They’ve got a solid roster, a few All-Stars, enough pieces to make the playoffs, and they’re sure to generate a buzz worthy of their new arena, but when the playoffs start, will this team really be a title contender?

Seeing as it’s the first time Williams, Wallace, Johnson, and Lopez will be playing together, it might be too early to tell, but looking at the other teams in the Eastern Conference right now, can we say with much certainty that the Nets are any better than the Kincks, 76ers, Pacers, Celtics, or Bulls (when they get Derrick Rose back from injury)?

Of course, the elephant in the room in this whole discussion is that the Heat look poised to dominate the Eastern Conference (and possibly the NBA) for the foreseeable future, and even if the Nets emerge as the viable number two team in the East, their chances of besting Miami and LeBron in a seven game series seems doubtful at best.

The Nets have certainly come a long way from the team and franchise they were just a season ago, and they’ve demonstrated that they won’t be shy about spending money to bring top talent to the borough of Brooklyn.  And although their spending spree has helped them secure a roster that should have them in the playoffs for the next few seasons, it doesn’t look like they will be a serious title contender as they are currently structured. There’s no doubt that the Nets could experience more postseason success than the Atlanta Hawks teams of 2007-2012, but even that probably wouldn’t be enough to prevent them from falling into the modified mediocrity treadmill.

Even so, I guess spending close to $300 million for a few years of consistently making the playoffs is still better than trotting out a starting five of DeShawn Stevenson, Gerald Green, Jordan Williams, Sundiata Gaines, and MarShon Brooks in late April or early May.

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