For some NBA teams, the last month of the season can’t end soon enough
This feature was first published in the 125th edition (2014 - No. 4) of SLAM China magazine. Here is original English version of the story.
But in the big scheme of things, it didn’t matter and both teams were ready for the game to end long before the final buzzer. Most of the fans in the Staples Center got up and left, and most of the fans watching at home changed the channel.
Blowouts are a part of the game for almost all teams from time to time, but what happens when an entire month turns into garbage time?
For the worst teams in the NBA who have no chance at a playoff spot, the present is already the past. By the last month of the regular season, most of these teams are already looking ahead at the next season and their last 15-20 games become nearly inconsequential. They throw in the towel a little early, ease their foot off the gas pedal, let the younger players gain more experience, and rest their best players to avoid injuries.
Meanwhile, team owners don’t really mind if their struggling team struggles even more: the worse they do, the higher their chances to rise up the upcoming draft lottery. So they trade their best players, clear out cap space, and horde up on future draft picks. The owners call it rebuilding and the fans call it tanking.
This season, injuries or ineptitude effected several franchises early, and by the time March rolled along, their fate had already been sealed. Their playoffs would be the draft lottery and their championship would be that number one pick. The Bucks, Magic, Celtics, Jazz, Lakers, and the Kings all showed flashes of energy, but as the season reached its conclusion, they decided to save that energy for the future. And then there were the 76ers, who turned tanking – or rebuilding – into an art form by trading away their best players and clearing cap space like never before.
After Derrick Rose’s injury and Luol Deng’s trade for virtually nothing, the Bulls attempted to get worse before getting better, too. Except that Coach Thibodeau and his squad of warriors – led by Joakim Noah – didn’t let it happen, and the team actually started playing better since Deng’s departure to stay in contention.
On the other side of the spectrum are the title contenders. Well, there are two kinds of title contenders: the young teams who haven’t regularly contended and are looking to make a statement, and the experienced teams who are now around almost every year and don’t take the regular season too seriously anymore. The Pacers, the Thunder, the Rockets, and the Clippers all feature star players who haven’t yet tasted championship success, and are young outsiders hungry to make a statement. And then, there are the Spurs and the Heat, last year’s reigning finalists, who use the regular season more as an experiment than a result.
For both the Heat and the Spurs – two contenders featuring star players who have all won multiple titles over the past decade – the real test begins in the playoffs. Regular season wins and losses don’t matter as much to these teams. The last, ‘garbage time’ month of the season is particularly cautionary. Coaches are sure to rest their star players or use them sparingly in this stretch to keep them healthy and rejuvenated for the post-season run.
So don’t be let down by the blowouts and the “rebuilding”, as long as there are playoff spots to fight for, you can be sure that there will be more than enough exciting, crunch-time play as end of the regular season approaches.
Tanking as an art form: the Philadelphia 76ers
In early March, after losing 14 games in a row, 76ers coach Brett Brown finally began to wonder if his team, suffering on defense and offense with equal horrendousness, could actually win again. This came after the 76ers had already plummeted to the second-worst record in the league in a losing streak that notably saw that drop back-to-back blowouts to the Clippers and the Warriors by a combined 93 points.
The 76ers are chasing infamy, and chasing it in style. While the players on the floor undoubtedly hope to go out and play as hard as possible every night, it can’t be argued that the squad that is representing the 76ers in their ‘garbage time’ has been assembled only with the future draft in mind.
But the optimism faded, fast. The 76ers had already stressed their intentions to rebuild when they traded away All Star point guard Jrue Holiday before the season began in exchange for Noel. And one by one, the rest of the team’s remaining talents were shipped out, too. Hawes was traded to the Cavaliers for Earl Clark, Henry Sims and draft picks. Turner and Lavoy Allen were sent to Indiana for Danny Granger and a second round pick. Days later, the 76ers cut ties with both Granger and Clark to be left with little return for their best players.
The 76ers lineup now symbolizes garbage time basketball at its best… or worst. By March, their rotation featured the likes of Carter-Williams, Sims, Anderson, Young, and Hollis Thompson, Tony Wroten, Byron Mullens, and Jarvis Varnado. There was still no sign of Noel, who isn’t likely to make his NBA debut till next season.
In terms of cap space, the 76ers could go down as the cheapest NBA team ever, giving them more flexibility than ever before. The only thing left to play for is Carter-Williams’ rookie of the year bid.
If the 76ers get lucky in the draft and fill their cap space wisely, would all this losing be worth it?
Over a year ago, in a nationally-televised game against the Heat, Spurs’ Coach Gregg Popovich decided to rest four of his best players Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard, which probably cost his squad an early season loss in Miami. While a subsequent fine brought nationwide attention to Popovich’s decision, the Coach was probably not too concerned; he was able to play Duncan and the rest of his aging core players big minutes in a deep playoff run that ended, ironically, in Miami in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Now, as Duncan and the Spurs prepare for another shot at the title, Popovich continues to closely monitor the minutes of his legendary big man. Duncan has played less than 30 minutes a game for three of the last four regular seasons, and as he approaches 38, he is primed to have the bounce in his step again for a playoff boost.
The Spurs – and now the Heat – begin to play their best basketball every season after the All Star break, revving up into top form right in time for the playoffs. But as the last few weeks of the season near, don’t be surprised to see star players like Duncan or Dwyane Wade skip games or play limited minutes, even if it costs their team a win or two.
Regardless of what their final regular season standing ends up being, both the Spurs and the Heat are guaranteed to be top contenders again. And after so many runs to the Finals they can be forgiven for looking ahead at the playoffs a little early.
In many cases, the end of the regular season might be an elongated garbage time for these squads. But don’t be fooled by the rare lackadaisical play or an off night; once the post-season begins, both the Spurs and the Heat will be motivated once again to make each possession of each game count like a Game 7.