In the NBA, for the most part, you're either getting better or you're getting worse, and for the teams that don't seem to be doing either, who are just sort of stuck where they are, that's a problem. Fans lose patience pretty quickly. So do owners. Take a team like the Clippers, for instance. They've been on the cusp of elite since Chris Paul arrived in 2011-12, but they've never gotten there. Never gotten past the second round, more specifically.
For the Clippers, it's now or never. The experiment is about over. If they don't make a jump soon, like this year probably, then it's time to start looking in another direction. Relatively speaking, this is true for a number of teams who fall somewhere between the teams on the rise, like the Jazz and Wolves, and the elite teams like the Cavs and Warriors. Stuck in the middle are a bunch of teams churning about, not really getting better or worse, just sort of hanging around in no-man's land, and those teams need to make a move in a direction that warrants not blowing up their core and starting over.
Here are five teams who are standing at their respective crossroads this season.
Win the press conference. That seems to be more important to Gar Forman and John Paxson over the last couple years than actually putting together a sound structure for a championship run. They clashed with Tom Thibodeau, replaced him with Fred Hoiberg, and then ended up cleaning house by dumping Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol while building around Jimmy Butler with big names Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo.
And yet, somehow, they still sort of feel the same. A decent team on paper, and maybe on the court too, but a total non-threat.
Rondo is on a two-year deal that really only commits the Bulls for the 2016-17 season. Then reeled in Wade on a two-year deal as well with a player option for the second. That buys them one year, this year, of winning the press conference and looking good on paper before they have to make real decisions about the direction of this team. One of those decisions was going to have to be about Rose, but they intelligently pawned him off on someone else and avoided the awkward situation next summer of telling him they didn't want to pay him big money. In return, they landed Jerian Grant and Robin Lopez.
So what are the Bulls doing? Let's say Rondo and Wade magically work out in Hoiberg's system -- despite being guys who don't shoot a lot of 3-pointers, and when they do don't shoot them well, and also like to play at a slow pace, all things that fly in the face of what Hoiberg wants to do, in theory. Even if that happens, where are you in the summer of 2017? You have a decision to make on Rondo, and Wade will possibly play the field once again. Do the moves the Bulls pulled off this summer actually push them in a direction or does it just buy them another year before they have to make the same decisions all over again.
Chicago heads into the summer of 2017 with Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott, Jerian Grant and Denzel Valentine all on rookie contracts. They'll have Butler and Lopez under contract for just over $32 million. They'll have restricted free agency for Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell to figure out. They'll also be hoping a 35-year old Wade can help them attract a big-name free agent in a similar way that the Los Angeles Lakers hoped Kobe Bryant would still be able to attract their next franchise cornerstone(s).
There are a number is big names on the market next year. Chicago can go after Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin. They'll be lucky to get a meeting with any of those guys, though, let along sign any of them. They can throw max offer sheets at Rudy Gobert and/or Steven Adams, but they're not going to get those to go unmatched by the incumbent employer. Maybe Gordon Hayward is someone they can land. Ultimately, a lot of people expect the Bulls to be back in the same place.
Kicking around trade ideas regarding Butler. Making decisions on Rondo and Wade that prevent them from real progress. A year from now, that press conference is harder to win. And it keeps getting harder to win the longer you prolong a real decision about the direction of this franchise.
Three years ago, most people expected the Phoenix Suns to be where the Philadelphia 76ers were. Sacrifice victories for lottery balls. Hope to hit big in the draft. Tank the first year under Jeff Hornacek in order to get him a good chance at coaching a young star. Then the Suns surprised everybody by being good. Really good. Out of nowhere, they won 48 games -- more than double that most projected them having -- and missed the playoffs by one game. Perhaps we grossly misjudged the young core in the desert. Maybe this team was actually good.
They weren't. They won 39 games the next season, mired in injury issues and point guard drama as they shipped Goran Dragic to South Beach and Isaiah Thomas to Boston. Last season, that win total dropped to 23 games as they fired Hornacek and planted Earl Watson firmly in the driver's seat on the sidelines. It sounds like they have a rebuild going currently, and in a way they do. They have young talent in Devin Booker, Alex Len, and their two lottery picks from this year, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.
In these three years, they've also swung big on free agent targets like LaMarcus Aldridge, brought in Tyson Chandler at 32 years old, and re-signed the backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. The situation in Phoenix isn't bad (aside from last year's win total) but it also has an air of confusion. It may be time to either go full bore with the rebuilding young roster or reshuffle the veterans available to them to bring a more steady foundation to help those young guys.
Bledsoe has real injury problems. Three years ago, he missed 39 games. He played 81 games in 2014-15, but followed that up with just 31 games played this past season. He's already had the meniscus removed in his right knee. The surgery that knocked him out of action past December 26 was to repair a tear in his left meniscus. Even when he was on the court with Knight this past season, they weren't good. The offense was mediocre, the defense was poor, and they got outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions.
This upcoming draft class is full of exciting point guard prospects. Assuming the Suns are bad again next season, doesn't it make sense to jump ship on the Bledsoe-Knight combination, move each guy for assets, and then pair a top flight point guard prospect with Booker, Bender, Len, and Chriss? Having veterans like Chandler and Jared Dudley around makes sense to help the young guys learn how to be professionals, but the Suns either need to go all-in on the rebuild (because the young talent is there) or move some of the youth for a big name veteran.
This one is pretty obvious. The Oklahoma City Thunder are in a huge predicament after Kevin Durant's departure to the Golden State Warriors. They went from being a title contender to being a team that has to make a tough decision regarding its other star Russell Westbrook. There are plenty of reasons for the Thunder to think they can convince Westbrook to stay on the Thunder when he hits free agency in 2017. They're one player away (albeit a very good player) from being a contender again. They have an intriguing young core surrounding Westbrook. And he seems to really love the organization and the people in it.
However, you could say a lot of those things for why the Thunder would have kept Durant. So any naive feelings toward Westbrook being a good chance of re-upping with OKC have to go out the window. Sam Presti is great at viewing any situation his team is in with pragmatism. That means he has to be open to the idea of moving Westbrook in a trade between now and mid-February when the trade deadline hits the NBA. If the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers unlock the treasure chest of assets, the Thunder have to listen.
You just can't afford to lose two guys firmly cemented in the top 10 of players in the NBA (maybe top 5) for nothing within one year of each other. If they move Westbrook for assets, they'll be able to add to the young core of Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, and Cameron Payne. A rebuild could be pretty quick in that case. However, the Thunder also want to remain a big player in the Western Conference and Westbrook allows them to do that.
How confident can they truly be that Westbrook sticking around will happen? How confident were they that Durant was still going to be there?
Heading into most seasons, you can look at the Sacramento Kings and say they're standing at a crossroads. But instead of picking a direction in which they should go, it seems like they just close their eyes, spin around until they get dizzy, and then look at the crossroads as if they haven't been there for about a decade. This time though, the ticking countdown of DeMarcus Cousins and his 2018 free agency is pounding throughout the eardrums of Vivek RanadivÃ© and Vlade Divac like the Tell-Tale Heart.
It sounds a bit dramatic to say free agency two years from now is looming over the Kings' front office, but that's the situation they find themselves in. Whether it's Cousins' fault, management's fault, or the fault of the leftover ruins from the vastly incompetent Maloof era, the Kings are once again searching for some type of leadership. They believe they have it in the front office with Divac, even though he's had a bit of trouble navigating the collective bargaining agreement over his first real year on the job (mostly last summer). He's also been stockpiling big men in his two drafts he's run for the organization.
Is that to use as assets in trades? Is that as insurance in case the Kings do in fact lose or trade Cousins? That may not matter quite yet. What does matter is the Kings are still searching for leadership on the sidelines to vibe with the direction the higher-ups have for the team. They believe they've found it in Dave Joerger and maybe they have. But they also thought they had it with George Karl. And Michael Malone. By now you know the drill: Joerger will be the ninth coach in 11 seasons for the Kings.
And even if he does work out and grabs the attention of Cousins as a coach he can trust, it doesn't mean Cousins trusts the rest of the organization to want to be there past 2018. This puts the Kings in a precarious situation. Do you gamble that you get it right in the next two seasons in a way that convinces Cousins to want to stick around? Or do you pull what the Utah Jazz did with Deron Williams and get way out ahead of trading away your star in order to get a huge return?
The Kings haven't seen a ton of growth in their time with Cousins on the team. Despite him being an incredible talent and force on the court, chaos has reigned supreme in the organization. Just this past season was the first time they've cracked 30 wins with him on the roster and they topped out at 33. They don't have a lot of prized young assets, but Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, and Georgios Papagiannis are all intriguing.
Sacramento has just enough to be interesting this coming season as they open a new arena downtown. But do they have enough to interest Cousins past 2018?
The Los Angeles Clippers are entering the possible turning point in this Doc Rivers-Blake Griffin-Chris Paul-DeAndre Jordan quartet. As mentioned, they've been a very good team since Paul was traded there, right on the cusp of true contention. They've also been a team that finds a way to fail in spectacularly frustrating fashion each postseason. Whether it was the collapse when they were up on the 3-1 on the Rockets two years ago, the injuries to Paul and Griffin last year, or the emotionally draining Donald Sterling fiasco pf 2013-14, the Clippers find a way to be interesting for the wrong reasons every year.
Heading into the summer of 2017, the Clippers will likely have both Griffin and CP3 declining player options to benefit from the rising cap and all of this money being given away like Jack Nicholson's Joker parading down the streets of Gotham on a float. They'll also have the free agency of J.J. Redick to deal with as they try to find a way to break through in a Western Conference that may possess the super-team of all super-teams in the Warriors.
If the Clippers remain healthy and take a full run at the playoffs and still can;t get past the second round, can you really stick with this core any longer? Won't they have had their shot by then? And indeed, if they do lose Griffin or Paul, either because they leave on their own in free agency or the team moves on, can you replace either of them?
Would Doc Rivers be able to convince Russell Westbrook to move to his side of the Staples Center? Can you go after Paul Millsap or Serge Ibaka and find a way not to miss a step with Griffin? These are questions Doc Rivers the executive has to face and it's tough to do that when you're invested like Doc Rivers the coach is.
The Clippers can hope to have a surprise breakthrough in the West much like the Dallas Mavericks did in 2011. Either Paul or Griffin would have to become the supernova that Dirk Nowitzki was during that title run. But if that doesn't happen, if the take their best shot and still come up empty, some very tough decisions are going to be facing this franchise. This is a very pivotal year for the Clips.